To survive the cold, turn to Korea's soul-warming cuisine
As the snow collects outside and my balcony freezes under a layer of ice, my inner Californian further recoils into the fetal position. Are there really still two months left? The only thing that motivates me to crawl out of bed most days is the promise of hot Korean food - the best thing to take the sting out of winter. Here's a list of five must-have meals for the cold months.
BUDAE JJIGAE (AKA “SOLDIER SOUP”)
I'll admit it: I was completely skeptical at first. After hearing about its random assortment of ingredients, I put it on the back burner of things to try in Korea. That is, however, until a friend, raving about how delicious it was, convinced me to finally give it a try. I was first introduced in one of the back alleys near National Assembly Station, though this dish can be found all over Seoul.
The name "soldier soup" comes from the stew's origins during the years surrounding the Korean War. When food was scarce, people began taking what was offered by the U.S. Army facilities and threw it together with what little else they had; rations and leftovers were boiled together in one large pot. Because of its popularity, the stew has come into its own as a popular Korean staple.
Budae jjigae typically contains ramen, green onions, ground beef, radishes, garlic, mushrooms, macaroni, sliced sausages, tofu, chili peppers, baked beans, tteok (Korean rice cake), parsley, mushrooms and any other vegetables that are in season. Mine also had bacon, udong noodles, pepperoni slices and small pieces of kimchi. Itís often topped with slices of American cheese.
For all the conflicting imagery that comes out of the description above, this savory, spicy assortment of ingredients is surprisingly delicious. For a solid introduction to the dish, try one of the Nolboo restaurants that specialize in budae jjigae.
GETTING THERE: There are several branches around the city, but Myeong-dong is a good place to start. Walk out Myeongdong Station, exit 6. Turn left down the main pedestrian boulevard, then make another left at your first intersecting street. Nolboo Budae Jjigae will be on your left after a short walk.
One of Korea's most common stews, kimchi jjigae is made with tofu, scallions, onions, garlic and, of course, kimchi. After the kimchi is sliced, it is put into a pot with all the ingredients, boiled with water or anchovy stock and seasoned with bean paste and hot pepper paste. The result is a rich, sour, salty, hearty soup that stands out as one of the best Korean dishes, period.
It comes piping hot in a stone pot, often served with rice and other side dishes. While youíll find this staple in countless restaurants around Seoul, one established place that specializes in the stew is called Gwanghwamun Jip. It's located downtown, near Gyeongbok Palace.
GETTING THERE: Walk out Gwanghwamun Station, exit 1, and make an immediate U-turn. Just south of the exit there’s an intersection. After crossing the intersection, on the same side of the street, you’ll find a small alley. Gwanghwamun Jip is in the alley.
Otherwise known as potato or pork bone soup, this one is my all-time favorite. The perfect soup for a cold day, it has a spicy flavor, hearty ingredients and a deep red color that comes from the chili pepper. It's comprised of meaty pork bones, sesame leaves, ground sesame seed, potatoes, kimchi, mushrooms, green onions and other ingredients, which are slowly boiled down in front of you until the meat softens.
The dish is often served without potatoes (creating constant contention around the name), though when theyíre included, they're one of my favorite parts. You have to work hard for this stew, as chopsticks are needed to remove the meat from the bone, but it's oh, so worth it. There are several gamjatang restaurants in the neighborhood around Yongsan Station.
GETTING THERE: Seobuk Wonjo Gamjatang is one of the better known places in Yongsan; it’s right across the street from Sinyongsan Station, exit 4.
Street carts are also a great place to find warm relief from the harsh wind, and are open nearly 24/7 all over Seoul. One of my favorite street foods is hotteok, which is at peak popularity during the wintertime. This really isn't a hard sell, when you consider that these carts are selling a handful of dough that's been filled with a sweet mixture and then pan-fried. Each one usually contains brown sugar, chopped peanuts, honey and cinnamon. The dough is placed onto a greased griddle and flattened with a special tool to form a pancake-like shape; the result is hot, golden brown and crisp, with a sweet center.
Some other variations include corn, pink raspberry and green tea. Itís served in a paper cup and usually costs 1,000 won, making it an easy snack to grab on the go.
GETTING THERE: Hotteok carts are spread all over the city this time of year. Look for them around busy intersections.
It's tradition to eat patjuk, or red bean soup, on the longest night of the year, which signals the beginning of winter. The vibrant red color is said to symbolize positive energy, driving away negative spirits.
Patjuk is a simple porridge made of red beans, water and small grains of rice. Small dumplings are sometimes added, as well as "saealshim," or sticky rice balls. For those unable to experience homemade patjuk, it can be found in a variety of traditional Korean restaurants and markets. The juk stalls in Gwangjang Market have been around for decades, and are a popular place to have this dish.
GETTING THERE: To get to Gwangjang Market, walk out Jongno 5-ga Station, exit 8.