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A Month in Korea – my favorite meals

When friends asked what I was most excited about doing, or once I returned, what my favorite part of my trip was–obviously the answer to both questions was food! My expectations for Korean food are high because my 할머니 (halmoni, grandmother) is an excellent cook, as are my mom and aunts. I loved every meal I ate in Korea! I wish I could replicate each meal now that I am back home. Instead, let’s reminisce about some of my favorite meals…and perhaps that’ll motivate me to cook these at home.

칼국수 or kalguksu, knife cut noodles, at Naemdamun Market in Seoul.

The first morning in Korea, my family woke up early and made our way to Naemdaemun Market. Specifically, we were going to get kalguksu, or knife cut noodles. My mom had been to this spot numerous times before, so she led the way. We were the first customers of the day and sat down before heaps of vegetable side dishes (namul) like napa cabbage and radish kimchi or spinach and bean sprouts sautéed in sesame oil. After tea and namul, the chef set to work, hand cutting our noodles, boiling them, and assembling each bowl with broth and fried tofu. I inhaled my bowl almost as soon as it was set down in front on me. I could eat this for any meal everyday.

도토리묵무침 or dotorimuk muchim, acorn jelly salad, at Namhansanseong-myeon.

My uncle and aunt live outside of Seoul and offered to drive us to see Namhansanseong up in the mountains. Korea has it right, with well maintained hiking trails and many cafes and restaurants at the foot of those trails. You could spend the day walking from snack to snack. We walking around the palace, and then my uncle nonchalantly pointed out a restaurant for us to get a bite at. We’d been in Korea for 3 days at this point, and this meal really blew our minds! We had a seafood pancake (haemul pajeon) that was loaded with seafood and green onions while being perfectly crispy on the outside and warm and chewy on the inside. We also had dotorimuk muchim or acorn jelly salad. In the photo above, you can see some thin slices of acorn jelly amidst all the freshly harvest salad greens. While the acorn jelly itself has almost no taste, the jelly texture contrasts with the crunch of the fresh salad greens. The salad is dressed in gochugaru, or red pepper flakes, with sesame oil and seeds and soy sauce. We had several other dishes and drank the meal down with a round of makgeolli, a ferment rice wine.

두부조림 or dubu jorim, braised tofu, in Gurye.

After riding the train most of the day to get from Boseong to Gurye, Reed and I decided to get mushroom hotpot for dinner. We walked from our hotel (Hotel Jirisan Sunlight) to what looked like someone’s house, save for the large sign that indicated it was a restaurant. Gurye is a town known for its proximity to the mountain Jiri, it sits at the foot of the mountain. It’s also known as a place that offers seasonal, traditional vegetable side dishes, many which are foraged locally. Some of the history of these vegetable dishes goes back to food shortages and scarcity. Many Koreans, including my grandmother as a child, foraged to have enough to eat. The banchan (small side dishes eaten with a mean, see photo above) we had here was noticeably delicious! The halmoni serving us laughed as she placed all the banchan on our table–a ridiculous amount for only two people. But, we ate it all! I even asked for seconds of the dubu jorim, or braised tofu side dish, after we’d eaten our mushroom hotpot. We were stuffed, and Reed thought I was insane asking for more–which you absolutely don’t do in Korea unless you intent to clean your plate. Needless to say, our halmoni server was pleased with us for having clean plates and finishing our seconds.

고등어 구아 or godeungeo gui, grilled mackerel, in Seoul.

Grilled fish, with rice and an ice cold Cass beer (pronounced “Cass-aah!”) is one of my favorite meals. It’s common in Korea and the grilled fish is often mackerel, though this depends on seasonality and what is available. I’ve never attempted to make this at home, but imagine a good broil in a home oven would get close to the perfect restaurant version I ate several times. As with all Korean meals, this is accompanied by kimchi and a vegetable side dish (spinach in the photo above).

낙지볶음 or nakji bokkeum, spicy octopus stir fry with fresh perilla leaves on top, in Jeju.

Our second day in Jeju, we spent the morning watching the haenyeo diving off the shore. I made us hang out and watch the divers for an hour or two… I wanted to see what they were gathering in their baskets and handing off to the men, who I assume were their husbands in many cases. I was also hopeful that I’d see them finish for the day and disembark from the water, which would be a cool photo. I love being in the water and a distant daydream of mine is to move to Jeju and become proficient, if not fluent in speaking Korean, and learning to dive with the haenyeo carrying on the tradition and knowledge, which is currently upheld by Korean women with an average age of 60.

Anyhow, back to focusing on meals… after watching the divers, we drove down the coast to a restaurant serving fresh seafood and known for their spicy octopus and mussel stir fry. Like many Korean meals, there was a lot of additional food that was served with the main course and it was all delicious. This restaurant also had little aprons you could wear, so you didn’t get your outfit dirty–which was thoughtful and cute!

Green tea soft serve ice cream at Osulloc in Jeju.

The most well known tea brand in Jeju, Osulloc, is a tourist destination or gift shop more than a tea farm. But, it was worth visiting in my opinion because there is a great selection of teas for purchase, the architecture is beautiful, and it is the best green tea soft serve I have EVER eaten. The green tea flavor is very concentrated, it’s not overly sweet which can obscure the flavor of the tea, and the ice cream is unfathomably smooth and creamy. The texture is worth noting because sometimes green tea soft serve can be grainy from the texture of the tea, but not here! I would visit again just to eat this soft serve…well, and stock up on Jeju Halla rock tea, which has a warm and nutty flavor, and paired great with the soft serve. The namesake of the tea is Halla or Hallasan, the tallest mountain on Jeju (‘san ‘meaning mountain in Korean).

To round out my ten favorite meals in Korea, the last three foods were: tonkatsu kimbap at the Busan airport, this fish shaped ice cream filled with vanilla ice cream and sweet red beans, and this dried squid in Jeju–it’s given a quick char over an open flame and you can also buy beer and other anju ,or drinking snacks, to eat outside with your squid.

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