Unleash a mind-boggling feast on your senses in South Korea, where choices include wriggling octopus tentacles, a mini Machu Picchu, and a tea ceremony that will test even the most dexterous people
Words: ALISHA WADIA
Photographs: JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
A group of Korean kids is excitedly screaming and pointing at us with their smartphones. Well, truth be told, they seem completely taken with our ride, not us. We’re travelling in one of those celebrity vans, a mean-looking black beast favoured by K-pop stars and VIPs. They trudge off, thoroughly disappointed when I poke my head out with a giant grin.
Weird and wonderful. No two words could describe South Korea better. Asia’s dark horse, it developed at lightning speed after the Korean War and freedom from Japanese Colonial rule, fiercely loyal to a 5,000-year culture and history, and yet it remains inexplicably underrated. Like Japan but without steroids, it’s a world where cosmetics sales rival those of giants like Samsung and Hyundai. Where Iron Man statues and baby-faced girls beckon you into shops. A country with some of the friendliest people, who love their kimchi and karaoke with plenty of fervour. A country that’s called the Land of the Morning Calm and whose national obsessions include K-pop, celebrities, looking good, and food, glorious food.
Hang on to words like bulgogi, bibimbap, gochujang, soju and samgyeopsal in South Korea – you’ll want to remember them. Because this country will nonchalantly feed you squelchy octopus tentacles and sublime, smoky bulgogi with equal aplomb. Admittedly, some of it looks like it landed from another planet, and tastes exceedingly bizarre. But even with food, South Korea’s a bit of an underdog, and so much of it, like the country, is exceptional. And, because it’s got some of the most delicious food you’ll eat this side of the world, we’ve happily risked ourselves, burning fingers on grills and assaulting our tastebuds with live seafood and boiled entrails to come up with a guide to eating your way across one of Asia’s most adorable countries.
“Put it on the racktus!” Hee-Won bellows.
Eh? In the middle of inhaling chunks of eye-wateringly spicy, succulent pork stir-fried in virulent red gochujang chilli paste, I decide it’s best to ignore his curious tantrum, along with the greens that accompany the meat.
“THE RACKTUS!” Sigh. A louder, more encouraging bellow and we understand. He’s wildly gesticulating at the lettuce and pork, indicating we should combine the two to make a wrap. Ohh.
Things to remember: meats in Korea are generally stacked on ssam, crispy leaves the size of your face (lettuce, romaine, red leaf lettuce… the list is long), dabbed with some more chilli or bean paste, with a good measure of kimchi for company. You must lift the awkward mess with chopsticks because it’s rude to eat with your hands. Surprisingly, looking thoroughly graceless as you shovel food into your mouth is just fine.
Seoul is busy, busy, busy, and, boy, is it hard to keep up. It’s a mayhem of neon lights plastered across towering skyscrapers, a megalopolis that’s modern and refined and friendly all at once. There are sleek karaoke bars and cafés, vibrant night markets, and a deep love of food. Once a World Design Capital, Seoul is unabashedly savvy – head down to Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park for a glimpse into the future, or dangle your feet in the Cheonggyecheon Stream that runs through downtown. Everyone here is perfectly groomed and very chic, and yet, it’s peppered with shrines and temples and palaces, clinging steadfastly to its roots. Seoul has a way of making the most urbane city-slicker gaze at it openmouthedly. Word of advice? Keep calm and Seoul-dier on.
Thankfully, Hee-Won, our guide, is helping us navigate. Typically Korean, he’s got a perfectly pink face slathered with BB cream, head gleaming with hair gel, and he giggles and nods twice for every syllable.
Bizarrely, we first encounter the ‘racktus’ over lunch at the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone, one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world. Winding across the Korean Peninsula, this 4km-wide buffer was built at the end of the Korean War. Chock-full of landmines, every inch of it is guarded by North and South Korean soldiers (on their respective ends) glowering across monstrous barbed wires. If that’s not scary enough, it’s a wildly popular tourist attraction – gaggles of unabashedly noisy Chinese tourists that seem to think your toes are part of the ground and selfie-loving Japanese tourists come here in droves.
This side of the border, it’s only possible to visit the DMZ’s various spots as part of an organised tour. Take in astoundingly green, if hazy, views of North Korea somewhere in the distance at the Dora Observatory, the glitzy Dorasan train station (the last stop before North Korea) and unsettling war stories at Imjingak’s bullet riddled locomotive. The most gripping, though, is the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four infiltration tunnels dug by North Korean soldiers attempting to overthrow South Korea. Creep through its narrow confines, which were cleverly smeared with coal by North Korean soldiers. They pretended it was a coalmine till explosion marks were discovered. Before you leave, head to the Freedom Village and try the DMZ soybean chocolate and stock up on packets of fierce Shin Ramyun, Korea’s devilishly good meaty instant noodles that will steam your insides out and make a turncoat of any vegetarian.
Catch the rest of Alisha Wadia’s devilishly funny food capers in South Korea in the February 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.