My wife and I were sitting on an overcrowded and overly warm city bus, anxiously checking the time as we inched along a similarly overcrowded street towards our meeting point for our Urban Adventures Seoul street food tour.
When we finally got off, we were standing on a busy street with most of the population of Seoul. But we had to cross the street to meet our tour guide for the evening — which sounds easier than it actually is.
The easiest and often only way to cross the street in Seoul is to find your way to the subway station. That sounds nuts, but it gets even nuttier. Once underground, you are likely to find yourself in a massive shopping mall stretching for blocks in all directions. It’s easy to come back to street level and find yourself in a completely different neighbourhood.
This mix of nationalities fit nicely into the telling of the last 70 years of Korea’s 5,000 year history. A story of war with American allies on one side and Russian allies on the other. A story that ended with Seoul destroyed and Korea split into two, where it remains today. Seoul was rebuilt into a prosperous bustling metropolis with huge skyscrapers and underground malls.
Together, our group walked alongside the Chyenggyecheon waterway — a stream that was once a polluted backwater where manufacturing companies would dump their waste. Now it’s a pedestrian-only oasis for city dwellers seeking a little respite from the chaos of the city.
We made introductions and covered the basics: how long are you travelling, how long you will you stay in Seoul, etc. The small talk of travellers who find themselves in a nucleus of commonality amidst a swirling mass of culture shock.
But navigating the Gwanghwamun train station where we were to meet our tour guide was a simple affair, and we soon found our group, made up of two Americans (us), a mother and daughter from Canada and one Australian man on painkillers from a motorbike accident.
The street food we came looking for appeared before us amongst the dozens of glittering lights adorning every surface of every building; the tiny tented structures of the food stalls presenting themselves as solid and good and honest – a different kind of oasis in the city, especially for those with a growing hunger.
This food tour had no set menu, which made Seoul appear like a buffet of tastes to be explored. We stopped at a food stall and before we chose, our guide Lee explained the offerings. Surrounding a hot skillet rested Korean sausage in a brown sauce, dumplings waiting to be fried, spicy red kimchi pancakes, fish cakes on long skewers simmering in broth, and the ubiquitous gimbap, which Lee accurately described as the Korean answer to the sandwich. The latter is normally a seaweed roll stuffed with rice and veggies and some version of meat, but in this case the gimbap was wrapped with a crepe-thin egg painted with a brush dipped in soy.
Lee asked if we wanted more and we responded unanimously with a question of our own: How much food lay ahead of us? He smiled proudly and gestured towards the city around us. “As much as you want!”
We continued grazing our way through the city, our main course still shifting before us like a mirage among the twisted side streets of Insa-Dong. We ate spicy chicken skewers grilled to order that made our lips tingle and cute goldfish-shaped pastries stuffed with sweet red bean paste.
We were full by the time we heard the loud, happy voices coming from a traditional Korean BBQ restaurant.
If you are looking for American-style barbecue, you may disappointed. There is no ‘low and slow’ cooking method, no slathering of spicy sweet sauce. You won’t find a hamburger bun. What you will find, however, is thick slices of pork belly grilled on a hot skillet at your table.
You are pretty much in control of how crispy you want your pork belly, so come prepared for an interactive meal. You will also get splattered with hot fat if you sit too close to the grill, as I did. Luckily we were provided with an apron for protection!
A few minutes after the meat began to sizzle, Lee tossed in the kimchi and garlic cloves, which mingled with the rendering fat. Soon the table was filled with bowls of rice, stacks of lettuce leaves and bottles of rice wine. The server flipped the meat before cutting it into pieces with scissors.
Lee demonstrated the proper way to eat Korean BBQ. First you take a lettuce leaf in your palm, and then load it with your desired ingredients one by one. A few chunks of pork belly, a little of the skillet-warmed kimchi, a spoon of rice and maybe a clove or two of grilled garlic all go into the package. Then you shove the entire thing in your mouth.
We tried our best to copy his style, but were laughing too hard to do this gracefully. Fortunately, we were given many opportunities to try to become masters at eating Korean BBQ.
Fully sated, we raised our glasses of rice wine first to newfound friends and again and again to Seoul, that mysterious city filled with delectable treasures waiting to be found.
Lead image by Zachary Stafford.