Seoul Food Scene in the Destination of the World Magazine
Here's an article I wrote for the Destination of the World Magazine. I would like to thank Michelle for this opportunity.
From kimchi to barbecue and bibimbap, Korean food is having a moment. We went to Seoul, the hottest new foodie destination, to discover the must-eat establishments
The love affair with Korean cuisine has gripped the world – and nowhere more so than Seoul. It’s suddenly in vogue to be a foodie in Korea and they do it with style, passion and excess. Overweight celebrities are now endorsing products with “proud to be fat” routines on comedy shows, much to the country’s amusement. And chefs are stars, too – ironic when you consider that many have spoken publicly about being disowned by their families for pursuing such a “menial” career.
It seems every television channel has a food discovery show such as Tasty Road, which has transformed two B-list divas into bona-fide stars. The concept of the show is simple: They stuff their faces with delicious food, leaving long queues of hungry followers in their wake. Then there’s Please Take Care of My Refrigerator, a South Korean cooking variety show where chefs create creative dishes from leftovers in people’s fridges.
In Seoul, there are two-hour queues for craft beer, 40-minute waits for churros, restaurants booked out months in advance and food delivery services for every type of available grub. It’s the same story in Jeonju, a city around two hours south of Seoul. On weekends, culinary connoisseurs swarm the city for authentic bibimbap, kettles of chilled, cloudy rice beer served with side dishes, blood-pudding stew, shaved-ice desserts and more – devouring the food like locusts and disappearing without a trace come Sunday night.
In Korea, the food keywords are: organic 유기, local 국산, and sustainable 자속가능성. Organic grocery stores were a novelty a few years ago are now everywhere. Even large department stores have a section dedicated to organic, local, and sustainable foods. Koreans are more curious about the sourcing and the means of production of foods these days. You’ll see more Koreans reading labels at the grocery stores and reading up on brands on the Internet. Koreans will scrutinize what sort of oil is used, if there are artificial flavoring agents and if GMO ingredients are used. Consumers are smarter now and want better ingredients that are produced in a healthy fashion. Just offering “bigger” or adding the moniker “Well-Being” to the label is not enough.
There is an emphasis on farms as people want to know the farming practices and there is more pressure on farmers to go pesticide free. Over in Yangpyeong country, local government is supporting farmers by helping them become organic farmers and have created a “Special Zone for Environmentally Friendly Agriculture.” They offer incentives and education for farmers to become organic. The Mayor, Kim Sun-kyo says in his Mayor’s Message that Yangpyeong is, “an eco-city where there is a harmony of nature and people! A rich farming land that produces safe, eco-friendly agricultural products that result in high income for the hard working farmers!” Other places in the city are also putting an emphasis on becoming eco-friendly. There are urban farms such as at the Incheon Urban Agriculture Network (IUAN) also the rooftop gardens by Marche in Hongdae.
Here is a list of some of the leading organic companies in Korea.
Orga Whole Food and Pulmuone Orga is the premium, organic storefront for the Pulmuone corporation. Pulmuone was has a long history of being one of the first organic food corporations in Korea. They started their company in 1981 as Pulmuone Chemical-free Product Market in Apgujeong (풀무원 농산물 직판장). The founder Kyung-sun Won has strong ethics and principles on creating healthy, clean food. Because of this his company has grown to nine different branches with an annual income of over 1 trillion won (1 billion USD). Founder Won was one of the first to show transparency in the sourcing and creation of food products. They introduced LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) standards to Korea and their aim is to become a global company.
Their signature products include their healthy and clean tofu, pesticide-free bean sprouts and their organic line for babies.
Hansalim Hansalim began in 1986 and it has more than 2,500 producers and near to one million consumer members. Hansalim is among the world’s biggest and successful farming cooperatives. They created an alternative economy that supports organic farmers and local agriculture that produces healthy food while simultaneously protecting the environment. At Hansalim, customers and producers meet every year to choose what and the amount of product they will deliver. Then they mutually decide on price of goods for the accompanying season. These prices are locked in and even if, let’s say a disaster occurs, such as the kimchi crisis in 2010 which raised the prices of cabbage to prohibitive levels. Non-Hansalim members were looking at paying close to 10,000 won ($9USD) per head of cabbage retail, Hansalim members paid the price that was locked in the year previous at about 1,500 won ($1.3 USD). Hansalim also runs the only livestock-feed factory in Korea that uses only local feed sources from nearby farmers. Unlike the majority of livestock farmers, Hansalim livestock is therefore not dependent on feed imports that make up the majority of South Korean grain imports.
It’s signature products include their local vegetables and grains, their barley pork and local beef.
If you ask any random Korean and ask them which area or city they think has the best cuisine, you'll receive a myriad of answers. Koreans tend to be nostalgic for their hometowns and say that area has the best food. Even though Korea is a small country. Its relative size is that of Indiana in the United States or of Great Britain, the country has a diverse food culture. And it doesn’t apply just to the south. I have interviewed North Korean Refugees and when I ask them if there is anything they miss from the North, they often say the food.
Regional food specialties are one of the reasons to travel. If you go to a place of prominence let’s say to Gyeongju, Jeonju, or Jeju Island, your friends and family will expect snacks from that area to commemorate the journey. For business trips, you’ll often have to get snacks for colleagues. Now if you do go to an area and you don’t eat at the famous restaurant of the area, your friends and colleagues might think you were foolish for wasting the opportunity.
Now in this article, I’m not going to focus on lesser known culinary destinations and not already popular tourist destinations. My belief is that the best foods are off the main path.
Sandang Restaurant: Crabs Walking
Chef Yim with friends
Yangpyeong: The Eco-city focused on Sustainable Agriculture
The blood of Yangpyeong is the Namhan River that flows heavily from the mountains and through the valleys. The city’s focus on eco-tourism and organic agriculture has helped build its city brand. Now it is one of the few small cities to experience positive population growth among small cities and it has a robust organic farming industry. The city is also home to famous Chef Yim Jiho and his destination restaurant: Sandang. The food is a combination of health, art, tradition and modern cuisine. Courses consist of tea marinated pork with salted shrimp, delicately weaved fried baskets of potato with lotus, and chestnuts set aflame. Meals end here with bowls of skillfully fermented kimchi, soy-marinated crabs and rice steamed in a stone bowl. The other famous regional food in this area is Okcheon Naengmyeon. They specialize in fresh made buckwheat noodles with Wanja: seasoned meat patties dipped in egg and fried. The savory wanja pairs perfectly with the refreshing, chilled buckwheat noodle soup.