Pigs’ trotters, pajeon (spring-onion pancakes) and piles of glossy black mayak kimbap (literally “opiate” seaweed-and-rice rolls, such is their addictive draw) clamour for attention at Gwangjang Market. Its packed alleyways, festooned with bare bulbs, are a raucous delight on a weekday evening.
Dark-suited salarymen and gossiping teens squeeze onto narrow benches for the earthy bindaetteok, pancakes made from ground mung beans and kimchi (fermented cabbage). Soft puddles of the batter sizzle and spit in greasy cast-iron hot plates until the centres are creamy and the skins crisp, ready for dipping into a light ganjang (Korean soy sauce), and eating with wedges of raw onion. Others tuck into hearty plates of yukhoe, the local steak tartare, served with strips of crunchy Korean pear and topped with a raw egg yolk and pine nuts.
South Koreans believe that their food is best eaten at home or, if outside it, on the cheap. Few dining experiences rival their street-food tents, or pojang macha, for charm or grittiness, with their plastic stools and suspended rolls of loo paper primed for sticky fingers. In Korea the job of a chef was, until recently, an unenviable one, and ambitious cooks went abroad to train. Fiery flavours – kimchi first – began to appear in posh sandwiches in London and on food-truck tacos in New York. Jungsik, in Tribeca, earned Korean fine dining its first two stars in the Michelin firmament in 2013, two years after it opened. This year one was awarded to a Korean chef in France for the first time.
Now the inspectors are roaming Seoul to compile the city’s first guide, Michelin’s fourth in Asia, due to be published later this year. Local gourmets are hopeful for accolades for the handful of young, talented chefs at neo-Korean restaurants who apply traditional fermentation and pickling techniques to Western dishes. As Seoul’s culinary star rises, many are returning from stints abroad. Kang Min-goo of Mingles, which opened in 2014 and is ranked 15th on the San Pellegrino list of Asia’s best restaurants, is one of them. Kang can get hold of the freshest seasonal ingredients right in the city: in springtime he has about 30 varieties of mountain herbs in his kitchens.
“Korean food has lost its identity,” says Kang. “It has been overpowered, often too savoury or too sweet.” To season dishes lightly, he uses traditional umami, hot or salty jang – fermented pastes that have an almost-meaty flavour – as well as vinegars. His signature dessert is a crème brûlée made with doenjang, a tangy soybean paste usually eaten with barbecued pork; he caramelises pecan nuts with ganjang and sprinkles them with powdered gochujang (chilli paste). The ingredients are often new to foreigners, and growing numbers of curious local diners are finding familiar tastes in unusual places. His scallops are marinated in makgeolli, a milky rice wine, and wet, wobbly tofu is baked into wafer-thin crackers.
Akira, a Korean-born chef, manages Japanese restaurants from Las Vegas to Jakarta. This year he returned to Seoul to open Dosa, his first Korean restaurant. The seasonal menu is refined, yet pleasantly full of throwbacks to old Korea. He teams sea pineapple (a bulbous red creature usually seen bobbing in tanks outside fish restaurants, scooped out, sliced and eaten raw), with sweet dried-shrimp foam and smoky mountain mushrooms. A rice-cake amuse-bouche laced with wild-sesame oil and wrapped in three kinds of crispy kim (seaweed) is a wink to a snack he concocted as a child; his peppermint dessert is a nod to the after-dinner mints that were once routinely offered at cheap Korean cafés. He rounds it off with small cakes in the form of Choco Pies, marshmallow biscuits that are one of South Korea’s best-loved supermarket snacks. But my favourite course is his raw beef and sour pear, served with the yolk of a quail egg and eaten on small blinis made with squid-ink powder: his twist on Gwangjang’s yukhoe, and a fitting tribute.
If you can’t make it to Seoul, try its food here:
Bristol: Sky Kong Kong, 2 Haymarket Walk, BS2
Paris: Mandoobar, 7 Rue d’Edimbourg, 75008
Tokyo: Handoun, Tsukishima B1, 2-8-12