South Korea, Day One

Heaven is a place where you can eat bibimbap for breakfast, bulgogi for lunch, and banchan all day long. Heaven is Seoul, at least it was for one short, gluttonous day. Melody and I arrived in Incheon International Airport just after dawn, still tired from our stay in Hanoi. We headed straight to Bon, an airport restaurant that was packed even at this early hour. “Aiport” and “restaurant” should rarely be used in the same sentence, but apparently this rule doesn’t apply in Korea.

Short rib bibimbap

I ordered a bowl of short rib bibimbap and mixed in some rice, gochujang, and enjoyed my breakfast with side of seaweed soup and kimchi. The short rib was super rich, but the gochujang’s sweet pepper flavor cut right through and woke me up.

Among the many qualities that makes Incheon one of my favorite airports is that it houses a section dedicated to Seoul transit tours. We walked to the tour kiosks, signed up for a day-long tour, and ten minutes later, we were on a small minivan en route to the city center. Our friendly guide, Dambi, explained that since Seoul had just experienced its worst flooding in decades in the previous week, many roads were still closed. The rainy ride to Changdeok Palace took just under an hour.

Changdeok Palace

Changdeok Palace

Changdeok Palace

Built by the Joseon Dynasty in the fourteenth century, Changdeok Palace sits within huge park grounds the palace’s living quarters, pavilions, gates, gardens, and the king’s private residence. Much of the palace was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and today, only thirty percent of the palace structures remain.

We spent most of our afternoon at the palace before heading over to Jogyesa Temple, the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The temple was filled with folks quietly observing their prayers, so we were soon on our way to our next stop: lunch!

Seoul’s hip Insadong neighborhood is filled to the brim with not only fashion and art boutiques, but snack shops and restaurants too. Internet, I was beside myself. So! Much! Korean! Food! I could hardly contain my excitement as we walked into a traditional, mahogany-lined restaurant.

Banchan!

We nibbled on our banchan while we waited for our main dishes to arrive. Sauteed mushrooms, mung bean pancakes, pickled greens, daikon raidish, seasoned mung beans and cabbage kimchi kept me sated until my bulgogi stew arrived.

Bulgogi stew

I’ve never seen this dish in Korean restaurants in the Bay Area. I think of grilled meat when I hear “bulgogi,” but this bulgogi a stew, and a deliciously flavored one at that. The thinly sliced meat was super tender, and sat atop a bed of glass noodles. The broth was light but meaty — a perfect balance.

Plum juice

We finished our meal off with a cold plum juice digestif before we went off to explore Insadong.

Ssamziegil

We soon headed to Ssamziegil, an artist-designed shopping center showcasing handicrafts, galleries, clothing boutiques, and snack shops. I only wish we had more time here, and after two hours, we’d only scratched the surface. I bought a pair of clear glass earrings and a silver ring before calling it a day. Our ride back to the airport was waiting for us, and we had a flight to catch.

At Incheon, we quickly passed through customs and spent the rest of our time checking out the seaweed, tea, and kimchi-packed duty-free shops. So much good food, so little time. I missed Vietnam already, but I felt that with South Korea, I’d only caught a lightning-quick glimpse. Until I return, I’d like to recreate the dishes I tried in Seoul at home. Do you have any tried and true Korean cookbook recommendations? Drop me a line.

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