Picture This: A Stomach-Stuffing Sojourn in Seoul

Changdeokgung Secret GardenAs a first-time, four-night trip to a certain foreign city is right around the corner for me, I find myself thinking back to last year at this time, when I did a similar first trip to a different city: Seoul. Since this was my first trip to Korea, I had a long list of dishes to try and restaurants where I hoped to find that food. My challenge was traveling solo, with the usual problem of limited stomach space combined with limited time before I continued on to Tokyo. A year later, I finally have a chance to share some of the finds from my trip to Seoul. (This makes me realize that I’ve never done a “full” report of my food adventures in Tokyo. Maybe I’ll eventually compile a greatest hits post from all of my previous trips there.)

Of course, I did more than eat, as the photo above from the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung proves. But most of the sightseeing was en route to the next market, cooking class, culinary tour, or restaurant. Besides, I know you’re here for the food photos. Here’s a bunch of them, presented with minimal “narration.”

Tour bbq restaurant

After a long flight to Tokyo, a little layover to change planes, and a relatively short hop to Seoul, I was exhausted and running late for my planned “Night Dining Tour” by O’ngo Food Communications. At the airport, I jumped on the wrong train and then switched to the right one to downtown Seoul, then walked (this would prove to be the trickiest part of the journey!) to my hotel. I threw my bags in the room, forced myself not to look at the tempting bed, and 10 minutes before tour time jumped in a taxi that fought its way through traffic and got me to the start of the tour just in time. First stop would be a casual Korean barbecue eatery.

Tour drink

And the first taste of Korea would actually be a drink: Cojinganmek. It’s a combination of soju, beer, and Coke. Food, fast, please. This is dangerous for a tired, jet-lagged traveler with an empty stomach!

Tour grilling

Luckily, the food would come quickly, and we’d soon be eating grilled pork belly, ssam-style.

Tour kimchi

The first taste of kimchi was a strong one!

Tour grilling

Meat on the grill.

Tour shoes

The tour immediately immersed me in Seoul’s evening activities, even if I was a bit disoriented. We traveled down some interesting alleys that I’d rediscover my next days in the city. Lots of interesting restaurants, though the shoes are better organized in Japan.

Tour tofu with kimchi

At another tour stop, I enjoyed this tofu with kimchi.

Tour toppoki sign

Drinking too much alcohol my night of arrival, what’s on the right looks better than what’s on the left.

Tour toppoki

The royal toppoki at Matborae Tteokbokki was fun, and kept me going. It’s got beef, dumplings, peppers, chives, fish cakes, noodles, and, of course, the tubular rice cakes known as tteokbokki (sometimes spelled toppoki).

Gogung bibimbap

For early lunch the next day, I enjoyed Joenju-style bibimbap at Gogung. Lots of banchan to eat aside from the main bowl of food.

Gogung bibimbap closer

And lots of different ingredients in that Joenju-style bibimbap. Fun to eat with many different flavors and textures.

Bukchon Sonmandu line

Right near Gogung I spotted Bukchon Sonmandu. Hard to miss due to the long line. When traveling, I generally trust long lines.

Bukchon Sonmandu working

Watching the workers make the mandu, I knew I had to eat some, despite the filling bibimbap meal I’d just completed.

Bukchon Sonmandu interior

A look inside Bukchon Sonmandu.

Bukchon Sonmandu dumplings

I ordered shrimp dumplings and devoured them quickly. And left quickly, before being tempted to sample some more.

Dog in store

Not food. But cute.

Ojang-dong Naengmyeon exterior

For dinner, it was noodle time. I walked and walked and walked until I reached Ojang-dong Naengmyeon. Here it is from the outside…

Ojang-dong Naengmyeon interior

…and the inside.

Ojang-dong Naengmyeon noodles

I was really in the mood for mul naengmyeon (as much as I enjoy bibim naengmyeon), so that’s what I ordered, and here’s how it comes to the table. The noodles come with strips of zucchini and pear, along with beef slices and a hard-cooked egg. The steel bowl keeps the beef broth icy cold. I added vinegar, mustard, sugar, and eventually even a little kimchi (I couldn’t help it) to continually change the flavor profile.

Ojang-dong Naengmyeon cut

The server comes by with scissors to cut the noodles, making them easier to eat.

Myeongdong Gyoja kalguksu

Mul naengmyeon would be part one of dinner. From there, I walked to Myeongdong Gyoja to enjoy their famous kalguksu, featuring long, chewy (knife-cut) noodles as well as pyramid-shaped byeonsi mandu dumplings. The kimchi here is pretty pungent.

Street food 2

If you’re still hungry in the evening, you can check out all the interesting street food.

Street food

Seems like a lot of young women like the spicy tteokbokki. I was too full from eating noodles, but I’d soon get my fill of them.

Bibimbap school

The next day, I took a morning cooking class back at O’ngo, and prepared this bibimbap which I happily ate for breakfast. And almost immediately upon returning to Seattle, I bought bowls to start making bibimbap at home. What I learned to be the secret of good bibimbap? Using gosari (fern bracken, a.k.a. fiddlehead ferns), which you can buy dry at many Asian grocery stores.

Tosokchon samgyetang ginseng chicken

Lunch was the famous samgyetang at Tosokchon. There’s a whole chicken, stuffed with rice, in the herbal broth!

Tosokchon ginseng

Did I mention that samgyetang is ginseng chicken? It makes a man “strong.”

Tosokchon ginseng to go

More ginseng, in case there wasn’t enough in the bowl.

Tongin Market kimchi

From Tosokchon, a stroll through Tongin Market. Lots of kimchi.

Tongin Market kimchi close

A closer look at the kimchi.

Tongin Market chap chae

Oh…I wish I was able to eat all this chap chae!

Tongin Market dry goods

Lots of interesting things to see in the markets.

Tongin Market tteokbokki making

I saw this guy making tteokbokki, so I had to give it a try.

Tongin Market tteokbokki


Tour yeot vendor

That night, I met up with Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi. He didn’t have any organized tour planned, but agreed to show a fellow food writer around. Great guy. This is not him, but instead a vendor selling yeot, which is a Korean taffy.

BBQ pork

First stop was for BBQ. Here with have pork diaphragm, less fatty than the typical pork belly. Note the eggs cooking in the “grease capture pit.”

BBQ pork grilled

Ready to eat!

BBQ pork belly

Of course there was also pork belly.


Next, on to Bongpyeong Memil Makguksu for mul makguksu, with buckwheat noodles thicker and rougher than what you find in mul naengmyeon. You can read more about all my noodle dishes in my “carbotourism” report.

Makguksu makgeolli

To wash it down: a floral makgeolli made with buckwheat flowers.

Two Two snack

Then it was on to Two Two, one of the original places for Korean fried chicken (KFC!). First, this Fruit Loopy-like bar snack.

Two Two KFC

The chicken was crisp and delicious. Or was it just another excuse to drink beer?

Noryangjin fish market view

The next morning, it was time to go to Noryangjin, the famous fish market in Seoul. Here’s a view of the market.

Noryangjin fish market prep

So many vendors ready to sell seafood, even offering to cut it fresh for you if you want sashimi.

Noryangjin fish market tanks

Tanks of fish.

Noryangjin fish market octopus


Noryangjin fish market shells

Various shellfish.

Noryangjin fish market shrimp


Noryangjin fish market squirts and such

Sea squirts, sea cucumbers, and lots to see that I didn’t recognize.

Noryangjin fish market vendor

I finally chose a vendor who helped me choose items for lunch, packaging it and sending it to an upstairs restaurant which prepared and served it to me. (But not this crab.)

Noryangjin fish market squirt and octopus

To start, sea squirt and the requisite live octopus.

Noryangjin fish market scallops


Noryangjin fish market fish

I never actually learned the name of the fish I bought. But here is some of it, as sashimi.

Noryangjin fish market soup

The rest of the fish went toward making this spicy soup, which I enjoyed.

Fell + Cole

Following Noryangjin, I went to San Francisco-like Fell + Cole for ice cream. My choices: one scoop of Strawberry Red Wine + Szechuan Pepper, and one scoop of Perilla Leaves.

Molly's Pops

After this, I met up again with Joe, as he invited me along to scout places in the young and hip Hongdae district for a future tour. Staying with frozen treats, we visiting Molly’s Pops and contemplated the choices in the showcase.

Molly's Pops holding

For me, Mint Chocochip and Mango. Presented with a camera-shy smile. (More about the frozen treats here.)


Sweet tooth still strong, we stumbled upon a fascinating Schneeballen shop. You break the pastry with a mallet and then eat the broken pieces. More of that story here.


Lots of interesting stores, cafes, and restaurants in this area. This sign seems to promise a cat cafe, a restaurant, and who-knows-what.

Hello Kitty Cafe

There’s the Hello Kitty Cafe.

Sheep Cafe

And then there’s the sheep cafe. Yes…had to take a look.

Mimine tteokboki

We went to Mimine for their spicy tteokbokki “soup.”

Mimine shrimp

But more famous at Mimine is tempura-style shrimp, which you can dip in garlic salt, sea salt, or seaweed salt.

Mimine sign

The owner even has a patent on the frying style, famous for keeping the shrimp straight instead of curled!

Dakgalbi whole

For my final meal, Joe took me to a place that seemed to be called “Charcoal Meets Dakgalbi” for spicy grilled chicken and vegetables. Here the chicken hits the grill.


The chicken is now cut into pieces that are perfect for ssam.

Dakgalbi table

A look at the table.

Banyan Tree Spa workers

One more thing: If eating is a hedonistic pleasure, so is going to a spa. I may have had the best spa treatment in my life at the Banyan Tree Spa. No…not a Korean scrub, but a Balinese massage integrating oil and a variety of techniques. My massage therapist was at once gentle and strong.

Banyan Tree Spa whole room

The setting was beautiful, and Banyan Tree offers a first-class experience. (This photo and the previous courtesy of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts.)