Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Exploring the food and culture of Seoul, South Korea

Let’s just jump into things, shall we? The rest of my time in Korea was a blur and a truly wonderful experience. I spent Tuesday-Friday in Pangyo, which is actually a bit outside of Seoul, and I learned, not really representative of what Seoul offered. My coworker, who I spent the majority of my time with this week (in the office and the times he was kind enough to show me around!) explained that before he got his job at our company, he didn’t even know that Pangyo existed. The reason that I was stayed there was because of its close proximity to our offices.

Thursday was a relatively low key day, as I ate in the cafeteria at work for lunch and then ate dinner at my hotel. Not too exciting since hotel buffets generally don’t have the best quality of food in my experience, but it got the job done of keeping me fed and alive. There was also a chocolate fountain and marshmallows, so that wasn’t terrible.

And the lunchtime meal was actually pretty beautiful, and although I didn’t really like the chicken, the rest was pretty good! I mixed the rice with the vegetables, the egg, and some spicy sauce, which I was told is actually what they call Korean “bibimbap.” I’ve heard of this dish-with-a-fun-name before but never knew what it was and never made the connection that it was Korean, so although it was just a cafeteria meal, I thought it was fun to get another new type of Korean meal checked on the box!

As a whole, I was so pleasantly surprised with the food in Korea! I really enjoyed all of the different meals that I had! I was not sure what to think or expect of Korean food going into the week, but from the hot pot to the bibimbap to the delicious meals I had on Friday (which I’ll get to), I can truly say that I love Korean food. Which, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have people with you helping guide you on what to order. So, I am very thankful to my coworkers who helped me navigate the week and took me out!

On Friday, both lunch and dinner were culinary adventures that would be worthy of their own dedicated blog posts were they not both experienced on the same day!

At lunch we ate at a very nice restaurant that had a number of small plates that were served to us. The first I didn’t grab a picture of, but it was a really delicious root vegetable soup.  We also had some small different pancake type things with vegetables and egg that were all super yummy, some salad type things, and something else I don't know what it was but it tasted good. And finally the main dish was some meat that fell apart as I touched it with the chop sticks. It reminded me of Persian kebab that I have had before with ground up meat mixed with herbs and onion and seasoning and then formed back into a thin patty. It was so delicious and I enjoyed every single bite of this meal!

I also learned a lot about Korean culture as the colleagues I was with were incredibly knowledgeable and insightful. One of the things that they shared was how the Korean culture is obsessed with speed and efficiency. As a whole, they are impatient and innovate around efficiency and speed. The taxi drivers in Korea all accepted credit cards, which was something I noticed right away, as other countries generally don’t have that advanced a taxi system. Heck, a lot of cab drivers in the U.S. give me a hard time if I ever want to pay with a card (which is why Uber is awesome!)

Another sign of this impatience/desire for efficiency came from the fact that the tables that we ate off of had little buttons that you could press when you wanted your waiter! And not just when you wanted your waiter, but specifically if you needed water, the bill, etc. Efficiency, baby!

I also was explained why the Korean culture is a “drinking” culture. I had heard from a number of colleagues to beware of the Koreans as they like to go out and drink a lot and I had been given slight privy to that the other night when I learned about the different “rules” around the drinking culture in Korea. Well, my coworker explained to me that the reason that Koreans drink a lot with coworkers is because of that obsession and need for efficiency. When you drink with others, you become looser and open up and share more and bond more. So in forming relationships, drinking helps you jump to that place where you say what is on your mind and what you are thinking!

This definitely rang true to me and seemed to make sense!

And what are those “rules” of drinking you might ask? Well, it seems like a bit of a complicated system and a lot to think about, but let me get into a bit. First, you never pour your own drink. Beer is ordered by the big bottle, and served with small 8 oz glasses. You should always be sure that the others you are drinking and eating with have a full glass. However, you can only refill their glass when it has been completely emptied. And when you pour the drink, while someone is pouring your drink, and every time you “cheers” you must use two hands. Oh, and the first round is to be chugged. And finally, when you are drinking with someone who is older than you, you must turn your head away every time you take a sip as a sign of respect. Bottoms up!

At dinner that night, we put these “rules” into practice and I also learned about the traditional Korean liquor called “Sanju” which is mixed with beer as we do “bombs” in the U.S. but it is just sipped regularly (besides that first drink, which is finished right away.)

For dinner on Friday night in Korea we ate in a neighborhood in Seoul that is incredibly international called Itaewon. The streets had all sorts of different national flags hung along them, there was a clearly large ex-pat community in the neighborhood, tons of restaurants and bars, and a lot of young Koreans out as well.

It was a meal that I was really looking forward to in Korea, as we were going for Korean barbeque. The meal consisted of a small grill on the center of our table, we ordered different kinds of meat, and were given a few different sauces and sides, big pieces of lettuce, salt and sesame oil to dip in, and a really awesome salad that had a delicious black sesame dressing on that we ordered “seconds” of. 

Most restaurants in Korea bring out the sides “for free” – which, I am sure it is included in the price of your meal somehow, but you don’t order the sides and you don’t get charged for second rounds, you just get them! I was happy with that because I really liked that salad. And the barbeque itself was delicious too. I love social ways of eating like this where you eat over the course of an hour or so, cooking and ordering more food as you get hungry and not shoving a whole meal into your mouth as fast as you can, which is my typical M.O. when out at restaurants.

We ate out with two of my coworkers, and I had invited a few of the local interns to join us as well, but they both politely declined saying that they had dates, haha. Apparently Friday is a big dating night in Korea and it has the nickname “Fire Friday” for whatever reason – maybe with the thought that sparks fly out on dates on Fridays? I’m not sure. My coworkers told me a lot about the dating culture in Korea too, which I thought was interesting. In high school, students tend to work even harder than they do in college. The pressure on students throughout middle and high school is incredible and nobody really dates. Once teens get older and some of that pressure is lifted (although not much… it seems like Koreans are always working, put in long hours, and have intense pressure to perform and succeed), blind dates and group blind dates are very popular! Sometimes people will go on group blind dates of up to 10-12 single men and 10-12 single women all together. I’m not quite sure who organizes these things but sounded interesting!

I really enjoyed my Friday in Korea when I headed from Pangyo, where I had been staying since Tuesday into the city of Seoul. I felt like I finally saw the Seoul that I was expecting. Lots of people, bright lights, flashy signs, exciting energy, etc. It was so much to take in and a really thrilling experience that I just tried to take in completely.

(If there is one thing I appreciate about the Asian culture is that they appreciate a good pic of your food or mid-eating picture.  My coworker got a bit excited in the amount of pics he took of me, but since I have them, might as well use them!)

Oh, and one other thing on that Friday night dinner. Before we were seated at the Korean barbeque place we went next door to a restaurant and got a drink and some “nachos” as we waited for our table. The nachos were corn tortilla chips, with Parmesan cheese and slivered almonds sprinkled on top and little side cups of tomato sauce, mayonnaise, and cheese that looked like it came out of an aerosol can on the side. My mind was blown at this concept of nachos.

Anyways, my Saturday in Seoul was on my own and I started my day early – apparently too early – and head over to the Garuso-Gil neighborhood, which is made of all sorts of cafes and shops, but none of them open until 11am or 12pm so my arrival at about 9:45 a.m. had me in a ghost town. I hung out in a Starbucks for a while and then went walked around a bit until the stores started to open. I wasn’t interested in doing a lot of clothing shopping, but it was fun to see the stores get filled up, and there were “pop up” stores and sales all over that made for a very vibrant and fun neighborhood to explore.

I also explored a neighborhood called Insadong that was very touristy with all sorts of souveniers and keepsakes to take home with you, where I did some shopping as well.

When I was in China in the spring, I did a lot of shopping there (so much so that I needed a new suitcase to carry it all home!) So, I knew that in Korea was where I wanted to do the majority of my gift shopping for people.  While I didn’t do a TON of shopping, I did make a couple purchases and lets just say that my family and friends have some Asian-themed Christmas presents to look forward to this year!

After shopping, I went to the Gyeongbok Palace where I toured the museum of Korean culture and history, viewed some of their older mock villages they had set up, explored the outdoor area and made friends with some of these cute little buggers!

It was a really beautiful day out and the sky was a beautiful blue.  It was a bit chilly though so I ended up spending more time in the museum than I usually do.  I'm not a museum person, but it was fun to explore old pictures and such a bit and learn about the Korean history and traditions.

The end of my evening was spent exploring some of the neighborhoods that were just incredibly vibrant and filled with lights and exactly what I pictured when I imagined myself going to Korea.

I stumbled upon a lantern festival along a river.

And then ended my night “Gangnam style” on the north side of the river (“gang” means river and “nam” means north... who knew?!) It is filled with bars and restaurants and shops and was an incredible place to people watch and stimulate the senses.  I also got such a kick out of the fact that I was "Gangnam" and kept laughing to myself about the Psy song that was such a hit a couple years ago.  I remember when my friend first showed us the video and I had actually forgotten until when I was actually in Korea that it was a Korean song.  My coworkers joked that the only two Koreans that Americans knew were Psy and Kim Jong Il.  Which... unfortunately isn't terribly untrue... until they reminded me of the girl from Lost!  And I knew of her too!  I hate when I end up living up to an American stereotype, but I couldn't deny my amusement with "Gangnam" street in Seoul.

I stumbled upon a shop and a bar that I will add to another hotel I spotted earlier for my collection of “Things Korea Should Consider Renaming” series:

One of my coworkers met me in the Gangnam neighborhood in the evening for one more Korean cultural experience of drinking a milky rice wine out of a saucer that we would serve kittens milk with in the U.S. We also had a pancake thing that was similar to what we had eaten for lunch the day before, but giant.

I walked SO much on my free Saturday and by the end of the day I was exhausted. The whole experience in Korea was really incredible and I went to bed on Saturday so tired but so fulfilled with all that I had been able to experience there in such a short amount of time.

Up next on the blog will be my return to China and time in Singapore!

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