By Mara Papatheodorou, your Tastes & Traditions Expert
Seoul is a capital of contrasts—different but united–as emulated by the yin and the yang symbol on the South Korean flag. Steeped in history and tradition interwoven with its enormous commercial and technological success, this electronic wonderland is now one of the world’s largest city centers and certainly the biggest in South Korea. Yet amidst the modern high-rise towers, the welcome surprises are the beautiful parks and palaces, city gates and temples that are reminders of a bygone era and diverse dynasties from the past.
The collections at the National Museum of Korea highlight Seoul’s complex background while the regal palaces of Deoksugung or Deoksu and the Jogeysa Temple, the center of Zen, project peace and prosperity. For a unique step back in time, a visit to the open-air museum of the Korea Folk Village shows the wares of artisans’ like potters and basket weavers and the traditional lives of farmers and blacksmiths while a stroll through Jayu Park features lovely gardens and numerous sculptures and statues including one of General Douglas MacArthur. During the Korean War in the 1950’s, the Battle of Inchon was a historic event and the Inchon Landing Memorial Hall respectfully pays tribute to General Douglas MacArthur whose US and UN troops aided the South Koreans in overpowering the invading North Koreans. The museum exhibits the soldiers’ militia from both the North and the South as well as photographs of life from then. And for those intrigued by the country’s intricate political structure and the division of South and North Korea, a trip to see and learn about the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) is well worth it.
For shopping and dining make sure to head to the charming Isadong District where antique stores, art galleries, teahouses, restaurants and bookshops line the streets. A walk through Yeonan Fish Market is also fascinating. South Koreans embrace mealtime and embellish their cuisine with small plates and side dishes (banchan). For lunch, enjoy the most renowned main course attraction of Korean Barbecue with its deliciously famous grilled “fire meat” served with rice and the must-have condiment KimChi (see savor below). Soups, stews and noodles with vegetables and fish flaunt great tastes too!
SAIL: Seoul. Before sailing away, bring South Korea’s flavors and flair home. Key ingredients in the Korean kitchen are spices, peppers and paste. Red pepper paste (gochujang) or red pepper powder, soybeans or soybean paste (doenjang) and sesame seeds are delicious reminders as is a bottle of Rice Wine (Makkoli). For tabletop, bamboo baskets and placemats abound along with beautiful cotton and silk woven textiles.
SIP: Makkoli (Korean Rice Wine). Originating in the 10th century and sipped during ancient rituals, this is the country’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Since then, this potent milky concoction of fermented boiled down wheat, rice and water, has gone on to be referred to as Korea’s moonshine. Today, it is often infused with fruit flavors or ginseng and served as an aperitif accompanied by the hors d’oeuvre pajeon, small pancakes made with green onion, rice and egg.
SAVOR: Korean BBQ & KimChi. Marinated for hours in red peppery sauces and pastes before being grilled, the deliciously famous “fire meat” call Bulgogi for beef and Daeji Bulgogi for pork is the dish to have in Seoul accompanied by KimChi, the national delicacy of Korea. A pickled vegetable condiment and side dish that originated in the 7th century, it is present at every meal. Today’s menus feature many types of vegetables as KimChi but traditionally, it is always a combination of Napa cabbage, scallions, cucumbers and radishes that have been fermented and then flavored with red pepper paste, powder or flakes. It can be sour and spicy and besides barbecue it is served alongside soups and stews and rice and noodles. Masissge Deuseyo (Mashike Du Se Yo—Bon Appetit)!!