August 2014


Seoul: Food and Culture
August 2014




Containers of colourful kim chi at the Gwangjang Market

If I've learned one thing on my first day in Seoul, it's this-never order topokki just for one.


Words and Photography Tim Richards


This popular South Korean dish is undoubtedly delicious. A big stew of rice cakes, fish cakes, boiled eggs, chilli sauce, noodles and vegetables, it's been bubbling away at the stove on my table for several minutes.


Now it's ready to serve, I'm enjoying the taste of this popular budget dish, hot and filling with a delicious spicy flavour.


However, it's impossible for me to finish more than half the amount in the cooking bowl. This is not a dainty dish suitable for a quick snack, at least not here in Sindang-dong, otherwise known as Topokki Town.

Aside from Topokki Town, there’s the Gwangjang Market’s excellent mung bean pancakes, the northern-style cold buckwheat noodle dishes of the Ojang-dong area, and the green onion pancakes of Pajeon Alley
Sindang-dong is one of Seoul's distinctive food alleys. These locales, dotted across the South Korean capital, are each dedicated to a single dish.


Aside from Topokki Town, there's the Gwangjang Market's excellent mung bean pancakes, the northern-style cold buckwheat noodle dishes of the Ojang-dong area, and the green onion pancakes of Pajeon Alley next to Hoegi Metro station.


There are also many lively streets of restaurants and cafes, such as Insadong-gil in the historic Insadong district.


This narrow street combines both food and culture as it winds its way southeast from near Gyeongbok Palace to historic Tapgol Park. Traditionally a shopping street of art and antiques, it offers local culture via the small emporiums and galleries along its length and in surrounding alleys.


There's also food and drink everywhere along Insadong-gil, from Western-style bakeries and cafes to traditional tea houses, some very old. Streetside stalls sell snacks, from fried chicken to Korean desserts. Some vendors even sell chilled alcoholic cocktails in plastic bags with a straw.


It's in Insadong's modern restaurants that you might discover something more cutting-edge.


At one upstairs eatery I enjoy a playful series of dishes in which the chef has imitated the form of well-known Western dishes using common Korean ingredients: a green vegetable-studded pancake, which resembles a pizza; beef between rice cakes to imitate sandwiches; and a noodle dish topped with the popular fermented cabbage dish kim chi, looking just like pasta.


But there's more to the city's food than easy-to-find restaurants and popular food alleys. Although Seoul is known as a very modern city full of towering buildings of glass and steel, there are patches here and there of the historic past.


Undisturbed by progress, their narrow, angled alleys are lined by single-storey buildings with curving tiled roofs in the ancient style. In the Insadong and neighbouring Jongno districts, these alleys lead to tiny open-air restaurants where locals sit around tables set with grills, cooking their own meals and drinking the local spirit soju.
One way to encounter these food secrets is on a walking tour, so I join the regular Korean Night Dining Tour.


Over the next few hours, we are led to a series of small local places to eat fascinating dishes such as galmegi, pork taken from the diaphragm then barbecued, sprinkled with spices and wrapped in lettuce; spicy fried chicken; and crunchy mung bean pancakes. We even sample a seafood version of topokki, with shellfish bobbing around among the noodles.

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza is simply stunning, a reinforcement of Seoul’s identity as a UNESCO City of Design
Korean food can't be faulted; 
but neither can Seoul's commitment to culture. Over the next few days I visit two of the newest cultural facilities the city has to offer: the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, and the city centre branch of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.


The Dongdaemun Design Plaza is simply stunning, a reinforcement of Seoul's identity as a UNESCO City of Design. Opened in March 2014, this sprawling complex was designed by British architect Zaha Hadid with a striking futuristic form.


Covered by 45,000 aluminium panels, the curving exterior of this building covers over 63,000 square metres in the district of Dongdaemun, a long-time fashion hub. Reliant on computer-aided design, the DDP's flowing lines suggest a vast silver creature emerging from the ground.


Inside, it's just as interesting, 
with sleek white corridors leading visitors to exhibitions and other attractions. The central Design Museum houses a collection of ancient Korean artworks and other items of cultural significance, connecting the nation's creative past with its present.

This purpose-built facility houses a marvellous collection of art by both Korean and international artists, and is a stimulating place to while away a few hours
On a more commercial note, both the Design Lab and Design Market sections of the complex sell the work of Korean designers. The Design Market is also home to a number of restaurants, from Korean-style buffets to an international beer bar.


My final dose of Seoul culture is a visit to the new campus of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, opened in late 2013 next to Gyeongbok Palace. This purpose-built facility houses a marvellous collection of art by both Korean and international artists, and is a stimulating place to while away a few hours.


Among the works on display, 
I spot several with distinctive Korean elements: historical warriors, a glittering Buddha statue.


The piece I'm most impressed with, however, is Home Within Home Within Home by Do Ho Suh. Hanging from the ceiling in the museum's largest gallery is a replica in translucent blue cloth of the three-storey house in Providence, USA, where the artist once studied.


Hanging inside that is a replica of the traditional Korean house in which he grew up.


It's a beautiful echo of the artist's influences, east and west, and I can't imagine a more delightful evocation of Seoul's connectedness to the wider world.

 

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    Entering Sindang-dong (Topokki Town)

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    Topokki ready to be cooked at the table

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    Delicious topokki served in Insadong

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    Modern Korean food at an Insadong restaurant

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    Modern Korean food at an Insadong restaurant

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    Fish for sale at the Gwangjang Market

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    Colourful condiments at a restaurant in the Insadong district

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    Food tour members enjoying spicy dishes in the Insadong district

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    Dongdaemun Design Plaza

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    The stunning Dongdaemun Design Plaza opened in March 2014

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    Home Within Home Within Home exhibit at the MMCA

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    Visitors at the exhibition

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