Over the past decade or so, Korean cuisine has been firmly put on the map, thanks to the popularity of the country’s films and TV shows, K-pop music and — crucially — the many diaspora chefs serving up Korean classics from London to Los Angeles . If, in the past, visitors would come to Seoul not knowing what to expect from the cuisine, now they arrive with a checklist of things to try: ‘real’ Korean barbecue; the favorite restaurants of K-pop band BTS; the jjapaguri (instant noodles with steak) from Oscar-winning film Parasite… And yet, there’s so much more to the capital’s dining scene.
Food plays an essential role in how Koreans to socialise, and the country’s history — hundreds of years of isolation followed by Japanese rule and poverty in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-1953) — is reflected in its gastronomy. Not a finishing meal upon, and dishes inspired by the US military, such as Korean fried chicken and budae-jjigae (‘army stew’), have become standards in the nation’s culinary repertoire.
Although currently limited by pandemic restrictions, Seoul’s culinary scene is still going strong. The concept of sinto buri, meaning ‘body and soil cannot be separated’, is emerging as a theme among restaurateurs, meaning that many are now choosing to source local ingredients, rather than choosing on imports as they might have done in the past. Well-reputed franchises, including Mumyeong Sikdang and Nature Kitchen, have interpreted the ethos to highlight seasonal and regional specialities, often collaborating with local farmers.
Seoul is split in two by the Han River, with Gangnam (literally meaning ‘south of the river’) full of skyscrapers and start-ups, while, to the north, downtown Seoul is dotted with traditional palaces and fortress walls, parts of which date back to the early Joseon Dynasty of the 14th century. In hip neighborhoods such as Garosu-gil and Hannam-dong, bistros featuring family recipes stand shoulder to shoulder with US-style cheeseburger joints and natural-wine shops.
Yet, for a country that’s relying on its ability to modernise at speed, one of the most prominent food trends to have emerged in the past few years has emerged in the past few years has revitalization of dishes that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s — among them kalguksu (knife -cut noodles), dwaeji-gukbap (pork and rice soup) and soondae (blood sausage). Young people are turning to nopo (decades-old restaurants) for authentic flavors and to find out how the dishes are made.
Barbecue, meanwhile, is one of South Korea’s best-known food traditions, and you’ll find no shortage of lively spots in which to try it. At barbecue restaurants you’ll find diners knocking back shots of local spirits as cuts of hanwoo (Korean beef) char over the flames. But there are lesser-known specialities worth seeking out, too: North Korean-style cold noodles, traditional spirits such as makgeolli and soju, and spicy stews, to name a few. So, of course, come with a culinary checklist — but you may need to add to it along the way.