Thursday, November 11, 2010

Delights of the streets & palaces

By Han Sang-hee and Ines Min

The mercury has dropped to zero in Seoul, mufflers are placed snugly over blushing ears and scarves wrapped high to create cocoons of warmth. But through the hustle and bustle of the G20 Seoul Summit, an avalanche of preparations, buzzing excitement and fall foliage, one thing is never far from the mind: that perfect cold-weather food that quiets the storm of hunger.
Roasted eel at Jihwaja
While Korea holds a cornucopia of seasonal traditions, food in particular is one of the best kept today. Although the crops and culture have transformed vastly over the hundreds of years, the original dishes of ancient Korea live on today ― whether it’s in the comfort of simplified street foods or the health benefits of traditional cuisine. The Korea Times went on the hunt to find the delights in both, exploring the options for those who wish to indulge in winter traditions while satiating their rumbling stomachs.

From the king’s table

In recent years, ``hansik’’ (Korean cuisine) has seen a resurgence in royal fare with its popularization through TV dramas, but the roar of the crowds has faded. The nutritious, colorful dishes of royal cuisine recall not only the historical traditions of the past, but also the organic, ``green food’’ trends of the present. Comprised largely of seasonal foods and containing minimal artificial flavorings, the food of the kings has found a place in contemporary society by bridging the two eras.

As food is seasonal, traditional holidays and special commemorative days have also become inextricably tied to dishes. While ``samgyetang’’ (chicken ginseng soup) is consumed during the three hottest days of summer to fight heat with (literal) heat, fall and winter call for ``dongchimi’’ (chilled radish kimchi broth), sikhye (sweetened rice punch) and red bean porridge, according to the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine. The porridge is eaten on the winter solstice, or ``dongji’’ in Korean, and is believed to ward off evil spirits.

The center, a research organization that preserves the culture and education of hansik, was established in 1971 and offers authentic cuisine at its official restaurants Jihwaja. With three locations in Seoul, it provides a seasonal menu for today’s palette and is known to have stayed true to the original flavors of the dishes. Restaurant founder Hwang Hye-sung is famous for having learned the culinary craft directly from one of the last royal chefs of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), and the venue is currently serving a full eight-course set menu (38,000 won) full of grilled eel, soybean paste stew and seasonal vegetables.

Those seeking a full-on experience with royal cuisine can indulge in the more elaborate set menus offered at the restaurant, complete with 12 side dishes traditional to the palatial palette. Typical royal cuisine, characterized by its meticulously prepared ingredients and elaborate arrangements, is exemplified in ``gujeolpan,’’ or the platter of nine delicacies. A variety of ingredients, julienned and lightly seasoned, organized in an octagonal dish, are selected and wrapped in a thin pancake made of wheat flour.

The three Jihwaja branches are located at the National Theater, the Tower Palace near Dogok Station on line number 3 and in Gahoe-dong near Anguk Station, also on line 3. For more information, visit

Other venues also offer royal cuisine, for those looking to explore new outlets in the capital. Ilhwadang in SamcheongGak, a traditional-style resort located near Cheong Wa Dae, comprises their menu on fresh ingredients harvested from Mt. Bukak and visitors can also immerse themselves in special performances of Korean crafts or tea ceremonies. Located in Seongbuk-dong; for more information call (02) 765-3700 (English and Korean) or visit (Korean only).

Suraon serves a diverse range of set menus, from ``juk’’ (porridge) meals to well-being courses, and offers performances on an in-door stage. Located in Banpo-dong; for more information, call (02) 595-0202 (English and Korean) or visit (Korean only).

…To street delights

``Bungeobbang,’’ or fish bread, is probably the most popular street food during the winter season. The crispy, yellow bread, shaped like a little fish, contains a rich red bean paste filling, and is popular among all ages, from young children to senior citizens enjoying the delight with their grandkids. While the rich color of red bean porridge was believed to have driven off smallpox, the popular ingredient has lasted through the ages, transformed into an easy-to-eat street treat ―offering warmth, health and even good luck. Most vendors sell the miniature treat in small bags, three to five pieces for 1,000 won.

``Gaeranbbang,’’ or egg bread, is another ubiquitous sight among the steaming carts of street goods. Sold for 700 won each, a sweet and soft cake not unlike cornbread is balanced with the slightly savory flavor of egg, baked directly on order. It’s a great supplement for breakfast on the go: quick and simple.

Meanwhile, ``hotteok’’ (700 won) is a small, round pancake-like snack typically filled with sugar, cinnamon and walnuts. While the vendor needs to have mastered a quickness of skill and way around the pan of oil, consumers must be aware of the burning hot liquid inside the delicious fare.

Simpler, more traditional goods are still a mainstay, such as roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts. Though these are more difficult to find in crowded downtown destinations, which have given way to more modern snacks, smaller neighborhoods and thoroughfares bustle with the piping hot treats ― appealing particularly to an older crowd who remember the snacks from grueling winters past.

For something with a kick, try the barbecued chicken skewers (1,000 won ― 1,200 won), which provide the heat of both temperature and spice. The bright red and orange snacks are popular among those looking to warm their spirits or even enjoy them with soju (Korean liquor) or beer. The skewers normally include a range of meats and vegetables, such as chicken, mushrooms, onions and green onions, ranging in spiciness.

Though street vendors can be found in every nook and cranny of Seoul, everyone has their own preferences and tastes. The most popular sites can be found in the areas of Jongno 3-ga and Insa-dong, which both hold an array of all the varieties. The carts of Jongno can be found directly outside the station; for Insa-dong, take exit 6 of Anguk Station on subway line 3. The carts line the main street of the neighborhood.

The main shopping district of Myeong-dong is also known for its street food, catered to the milling crowds of tourists, locals and businessmen. While all the usual suspects can be spotted, other foods such as kebabs, Turkish ice cream, frozen yogurt and large, cream-filled choux can be seen clutched in the hands of shoppers. 

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