“Anyoung Haseyo (Hello).” Probably figuring I was a tourist from my camera gears, the warm-smiling eonni (middle-aged waitress) asked casually in English, “How many?” As I showed her “ONE” finger, she took a small step backward. Her smile frozen a bit and asked dubiously, “No half-chicken, okay?” She actually was not being rude. It was just a kneejerk reaction to a social stigma.
Many Korean dishes are meant to be shared. Although more and more restaurants are increasingly embracing the “singleton” urban lifestyle in Seoul, eating alone can still be seen as socially awkward in some eateries.
And, this is a restaurant specialized in selling whole-chickens in big boiling pots. The portion is certainly too big for a woman with average appetite. Yes, I might be the odd-woman sitting but who cared? It was really the tasty experience that counted.
Watching the raw chicken pieces rolling in the boiling pot and slowly mingling with vegetables in the broth was a pleasant prelude. It built up the anticipation of deliciousness down the road. Mixing scallions, chili paste and a slightly sour secret sauce with the simple sweetness of chicken meat created a perfect cocktail for explosive flavours. My regret: I was simply too full to lick up every last drop of the leftover broth with a bowl of rice or noodles.
Indeed, travelling for solo foodies in the capital of South Korea – a modern, vibrant and one of the most developed cities in East Asia – could be very frustrating. However, nothing would stop me from enjoying the bold and authentic taste of Korean cuisines. I just had to work-around the limitation, mainly my stomach.
Tasting the Streets
Like in many Asian countries, street foods are part of the daily life of Koreans. Naturally, that was the starting point of my culinary journey in Seoul. Staying close to a busy district near Ewha Woman’s University, I readily immersed myself in the hustle and bustle of the neighbourhood. One could easily dip into any of the popular tourist restaurants there. But, it would not be as much fun to scout out the food stalls in the shopping hub.
Creating a combo with Soondae (Blood Sausage), Tteokbokki (Pan-fried Spicy Rice Cakes) and/or Yangnyeom Chikin (Fried Chicken in a Cup) was a piece of cake, literally. Small portions. Great variety. Quick snapshots of local food scene.
Exploring the Food Alleys
However, no one can claim to have a real taste of Korean staple foods – meat, vegetables and steamed rice – without a sit-down dinner. In fact, hanging out in an eatery in a food alley or at a night market is the norm for most of the working class. Koreans work very long hours on any given date and socialize after work is a stress management therapy.
“There is no business if you cannot drink, even if you are a woman” says the food guide of my 4-hour walking tour. As the only single in the group, I seemed to get a bit of extra attention and care. He stacked up three glasses – filling the first one with coca cola, the second one with a beer and the last one with Soju (a distilled beverage with ethanol and water). “This is called ‘Sweetness After Bitterness’,” he said. Nice try.
That was my first round only in a Galbi (Korean BBQ) restaurant in a back alley. Safety was one good reason to pay for a relative-pricey tour, although Korea was considered generally safe country for solo female travellers. After taking numerous twists and turns, I lost my sense of direction completely. All signs around me were in Hangul (Korean alphabet). I was glad that I was in a group, despite we all looked “foreign”. I could totally capitalize on the luxury to sweep through FOUR restaurants and share a big dish like Ddukbokki Jungol (Spicy Rice Cake Hot Pot).
Less is More
As much as I loved the food tour, there was one cuisine which I looked forward most was missing. Gejang is RAW crab marinated in soya sauce. This history of this dish can trace back to 14th century. On the last day of my trip, I found myself at the door steps of a famous specialty store in Jongno-gu district. It has been in the business for decades. A full course crab meal came with a dozen of Korean side dishes. To fully enjoy this, I actually skipped breakfast and came here with an empty belly!
The orange roe were already flirting with my taste buds before we got intimate. They were slimy yet not stinky. They melt in my mouth and left a savory aroma behind. And, as I moved down to the meaty part, it was another tasty roller-coaster ride. While the secret soya sauce highlighted the freshness of the crab meat, the not-so-subtle flavours of sesame, scallion and garlic added layers of sophistication. To finish it off, I made a hand-roll by wrapping crispy purple cabbage with rice and dipped it into the marinated sauce. That gave me the final punch.
At the end, I was so full that I could only have a soup at night. Yes, I missed the chance to have more. But, sometimes, one quality meal was all it took for a palatable memory.
Withstanding the eerie eyes around me from time to time, I left Korea with a lingering desire to come back. I am an advocate for solo travel, at least once a year. The taste of liberation is simply addictive and irresistible.
Related link: Travel Food Photography