Gallery: Snapshots from South Korea: Foods You Must Eat in Jeju-do and the Mainland

<em>Bulgogi</em> in Ulsan
Bulgogi in Ulsan

At times, it’s easy to overlook and under-appreciate the Korean dish of bulgogi. After all, there are far more flashier and fattier odes to meat over fire found in the Korean culinary repertoire. Lest we not forget that this was once a meal reserved for special occasions, there are preparations that elevate these inconspicuous flakes of marinated beef into something truly marvelous.

At Giwajip restaurant in Ulsan, eonyang bulgogi, thin shreds of beef are left to marinate for several days, and then briefly blasted with natural wood charcoal, achieving notes of carmelization and smoke, while the interior remains blessedly moist and meaty.

<em>Galchi</em> in Jeju-do
Galchi in Jeju-do

Galchi, or hairtail fish, is one of the more important commercial exports of Jeju island, where it makes its way onto dinner tables across mainland Korea, Japan and beyond. Such demand is understandable, for this fish is mild flavored with firm flesh similar to branzino, and exceedingly easy to clean and debone. And it’s excellent when served raw, or married with radishes and stewed in an ultra spicy broth (galchi jorim), or simply grilled.

<em>Hwe Guksu</em> in Jeju-do
Hwe Guksu in Jeju-do

During the hot and hazy summer months, respite from the heat can be found in a bowl of hwe Guksu (raw fish with cold noodles). This dish first plays with textures from the tangle of pliant noodles and fresh greens, served with raw fish so fresh, it’s almost crunchy. There’s plenty of flavor as well from a shock of red gochujang (red pepper paste). However, don’t let the bright red color fool you – the sauce is only faintly spicy, and balances the flavors with a bit of sweet, salty and sour.

<em>Chari hwe</em> in Jeju-do
Chari hwe in Jeju-do

For a truly adventurous meal, charter a boat off of the waters of Jeju-do. Although these boats are equipped for some serious commercial fishing, they’ll take groups of tourists out on the water for a reasonably fee (this charter cost ₩120,000 for our group of six people). You eat what you catch, and in this case, we caught a bounty of chari, which was prepped only minutes after they were pulled from the water, and served with fresh kkaennip (wild sesame), garlic and gochujang. A meal doesn’t get any fresher or more rewarding than this.

<em>Haemul jungol</em> in Jeju-do
Haemul jungol in Jeju-do

A meal of haemul jungol, or seafood hotpot, is all about the quality of the ingredients, as there’s no technique or tricks to mask anything but the freshest of seafood. Indeed it is a simple dish; merely chuck some ultra fresh abalone, crab, and other sea creatures into a seafood broth, and set to boil. But to try to improve upon this technique would only divert one’s attention from this moment of clean gastronomic pleasure.

At Hae-rak won restaurant near Seogwipo on Jeju island, the leftover seafood broth gets a second finale from a handful of wispy thin and tender green tea wheat noodles.

<em>Heuk Dwaeji Samgyeopsal</em> in Jeju-do
Heuk Dwaeji Samgyeopsal in Jeju-do

Across Korea, there are restaurants that are singularly devoted to samgyeopsal (pork belly), but on Jeju-do, there are restaurants that further refine and define their menu with huek dweji samgyeopsal, or black pig pork belly. This local heritage breed of pig bares a more definitive porky flavor as well as a good deal more fat. In fact, the local black pig is held in such high regard (thus commanding a higher price), that the abattoirs forgo removing the black hair on some cuts, proving the provenance of the pig. A local pig deserves a local brew and bottles of Hallasan soju, which is brewed locally on the island, is the recommended drink to accompany your feast of pork. Easily the most famous restaurant for this dish is Heuk Tohn Gah (there’s also a sister restaurant in Seoul), but this meal from Sonangbat Dwaeji Goeul restaurant in Jeju city was just as great.

<em>Godeungo gui</em> in Jeju-do
Godeungo gui in Jeju-do

Freshly caught and grilled godeungo (mackerel) is a whole other beast than the frozen versions that we might find on our table in Korean and Japanese restaurants across the country. The fresh version boasts an unbelievable amount of flavor and oil that I’ve not experienced other than at some of the restaurants on Jeju-do, where the mackerel is usually caught within 24 hours of cooking. And it’s a cheap piece of fish to boot, this version at Yoori Ne restaurant on Jeju-do only cost ₩7,000 and included a complimentary bowl of homemade dwenjang jjigae (bean paste soup) and plenty of sides.

<em>Jeonbokjuk</em> in Jeju-do
Jeonbokjuk in Jeju-do

Jeonbokjuk, or rice porridge with abalone, immediately recalls an Italian risotto. Indeed, the cooking technique is similar—rice is slowly simmered with abalone stock and slices of abalone, which are plucked from the rocky coast of Jeju-do. Similar to a risotto, this simple dish of only 3 to 4 ingredients (rice, stock, abalone, salt) yields a fantastically complex, deep and soothing flavor profile of sweet rice and deep brine.

On the island of Jeju-do, abalone are traditionally hand dived by female divers, known as hanyeo. The hanyeo dive for abalone sans any breathing equipment, allowing them only to harvest what can be collected on a lung full of air, thus preventing overfishing. As such, abalone is considered somewhat of a luxury ingredient – this version ran us ₩10,000 (about $9) at Jeonkuk Susahn restaurant on Jeju-do.

<em>Malgogi yook hwe</em> in Jeju-do
Malgogi yook hwe in Jeju-do

Hang in with me here. Just look at that pile of yook hwe (raw steak), mesmerizingly maroon in color and glistening with a fine sheen of sesame oil and salt. For folks that love a good steak tartare, it looks fantastic, right? What if I told you it was horse meat? And what if I told you that there isn’t a social stigma of eating such meat in Jeju-do (after all, the French do the same)? And how about the fact that the horse that goes into this dish isn’t the kind that you see trotting around Central Park—they’re actually fat, squat things bred specifically for eating, similar to cattle. Still want to try it? Good, you should, because this version at Mok-ma Jeongwon on Jeju-do is some of the finest raw meat I’ve ever tasted.

<em>Malgogi</em> in Jeju-do
Malgogi in Jeju-do

If you’re feeling adventurous enough to try malgogi (horse meat), but prefer a cooked version, you could try malgogi, thin slices of marinated horse meat, which is cooked at your table. Due to the meat’s extremely low fat content, only a brief brush with heat is needed to cook the meat to a perfectly tender medium rare. The meat, which is similar in texture to beef but much milder flavored, also cooks down with oniony stalks of fresh buchu (garlic chives) for a pop of flavor and texture.

<em>Momguk</em> in Jeju-do
Momguk in Jeju-do

Unless you’re visiting Jeju-do, it’s likely that you’ll never get to enjoy a slurp of momguk, a thick and velvety stew of slow cooked pork and gulfweed, which is traditionally served as a haejangguk, or hangover cure. The meaty broth is said to emit an off putting smell, making it less popular with foreigners and mainland Koreans. However, I personally found that momguk recalls caldo verde, or kale stew from Portugal. Indeed, an article from The Jeju Weekly suggested that Jean-George Vongerichten likened this soup to a traditional dish from the Alsace region of France. Clearly the Jeju-do cooks are onto something with this one.

<em>Seonggeguk</em> in Jeju-do
Seonggeguk in Jeju-do

If you could distill the bounty of seafood surrounding Jeju island into a single dish, you would come up with seonggeguk, a murky soup of seaweed, sea urchin roe, and sometimes abalone, all harvested from local waters. It’s an outwardly simple dish of only three to four ingredients, but the musk of the seaweed and brine of the urchin create fantastically complex flavors. It’s also a healthy bowl of soup to boot—it’s traditionally prescribed to expectant mothers due its high iron and protein content.

<em>Jangeo gui</em> in Haeri-myeon, Gochang-gun
Jangeo gui in Haeri-myeon, Gochang-gun

The sleepy coastal town of Haeri, which is nestled along the Yellow sea, harbors some of the freshest and fattest jangeo (eel) you’ll ever taste. The adult eels, which spend their lives fattening up out at sea, swarm upstream to freshwater rivers during mating season where fishermen take care to only pick off the male specimens. At Nakwon restaurant in Haeri, the delicate and lusciously fatty eel are served lightly grilled and brushed with a sweet and salty soy glaze.

Fried Chicken at Kkanbu in Seoul
Fried Chicken at Kkanbu in Seoul

Serious Eats may already be familiar with Korean fried chicken chains such as Bon Chon, Kyochon or Kyedong, known for their thin, ultra crisp shell achieved from a double fry technique, and glazed with either a sweet or fiery soy coating. However Kkanbu, a relatively new chain of fried chicken restaurants has achieved what no other Korean chain has done. They’re playing in a field that, up until now, has been dominated by Southern fried chicken. That is to say, thick crunchy wheat flour based batter hiding ultra-moist, plump chicken, cooked in a pressure cooker. If and when Kkanbu makes it stateside, I firmly believe they could hold their own against some of the best Southern style fried chicken joints. And if their fried chicken doesn’t impress, at least their ultra-spicy dakbal (de-boned, fried chicken feet) will make a good conversation piece.

<em>Galbi</em> and <em>Naengmyeon</em> in Seoul
Galbi and Naengmyeon in Seoul

When it comes to eating out in Korea, the classic combination of sizzling galbi (marinated short rib) and naengmyeon (cold noodles, made of buckwheat, potatoes or arrowroot) is the perfect play on texture and temperature, with hot and smoky short ribs chased by a rush of cold noodles. At mapo jips specializing in galbi such as this one in the Gangseo-gu neighborhood of Seoul, the meat is cooked over a blazing pile of coals, while the smoke is conveniently sucked away using overhead vents.

Baseball Snacks in Seoul
Baseball Snacks in Seoul

Similar to Japan, baseball fever has swept Korea since the early 1980s. All of the rules of American baseball apply, but the atmosphere of the stadium is radically different—fans riotously cheer using inflatable thundersticks, a cold tall boy of beer will only run you ₩2,500 ($2.25), and instead of peanuts or cracker jacks, you can snack on packages of kimbap, strips of ojingeochae, salty squid jerky, and chilled bottles of soju which is sold at kiosks outside of the stadium. Inside the stadium, vendors serve Western fare such as pizza and fried chicken. All of my cheering, fueled by cheap beer and chewy squid snacks, couldn’t help my Doosan Bears as they were thrashed by the Hanwha Eagles on my visit.

Street Food in Seoul
Street Food in Seoul

In areas of Korea where youth congregate for the evenings, certain themes arise. You’re certain to see guys cruising around in tricked out cars, girls teetering on high heels, throngs of bars with brightly lit signs, and jubilant drinkers drawn to them like moths to the flame. You’ll hear the strains of singing from 2nd floor noraebang (Karaoke parlors), and you’ll smell whiffs of grilling and frying from the many street vendors that emerge at nights to provide sustenance for drinkers. Spicy chicken on skewers, riffs on hot dogs, accordions of fish cake threaded onto sticks (odeng), sweet pancakes (hotteok), and fried mandoo (dumplings), everything priced around a dollar or two. These are just a few of the dishes that make up the backbone of Korean street food. In the popular party neighborhood of Hongdae in Seoul where this street vendor plies his trade, the eating, drinking and revelry are ramped up to a lively frenzy.

<em>Ddeukboki</em> in Seoul
Ddeukboki in Seoul

We’re still in Hongdae. It's 4 a.m. and we’re woozy from shots of cheap soju and cold Cass lagers and exhausted from hours of singing at one of the many noraebang (karaoke parlors). Something spicy and hearty may hold the impending hangover in check, and a bowl of steaming hot ddeukboki (spicy rice cakes) is our savior. Thick, chewy rice cakes are coated in a violently red sauce that matches heat with sweet. And keeping the rice cake company are delicate sheets of odeng (fish cake). Add to that, a cup of hot and salty odeng guk (fishcake soup), which may not sound appealing to our Western sensibilities, but it does wonders to chip away at tomorrow’s hangover.