Finding New Heart in Old Seoul, Korea

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The Korean capital may be forward-looking and microchip-fast, but the traditions of yesteryear meld with modern life in surprisingly graceful ways.

Charlie Cho and I were standing on the curb outside three identical restaurants that specialize in pig’s feet. Charlie is tall and athletic, has platinum-frosted hair, and works as a creative director at a media company. Before coming to Seoul, I’d asked New York chef Hooni Kim, who’s earned a following for his Korean tapas at Danji, for contacts in the city, which led me to Charlie, who insisted on taking me to dinner. Now all we had to do was pick the right place for pig’s feet.

Charlie made for the middle one and laughed when I asked him why. Because that place was the first to open its doors, he said, and only after it had gained a citywide reputation for excellence did the other two set up shop. That was 20 years ago, he added, noting that such flattery happens all the time in Seoul, with whole streets, even neighborhoods, known for a single dish.

“There’s a real tension between fad-driven instincts and traditional foodways,” he explained over a pile of thinly sliced pig’s feet. “Korean people happily embrace anything, whatever it is, that comes off the plane at Incheon Airport, but we won’t eat at a pig’s feet restaurant unless it’s three generations old and is dedicated to that one thing.”

A vendor at Gwangjang Market Close

A vendor at Gwangjang Market

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A vendor at Gwangjang Market

Intercepting my effort to pour my own beer, and using both hands as tradition dictates, Charlie filled my glass. “We are very concerned with keeping up with the Joneses,” he said, “but respect for our elders and established ways is in our DNA.”

It was exactly the established way of doing and eating things that Marcus Nilsson—a well-traveled photographer with Korea at the top of his next- trip list—and I came to Seoul to explore: to dig into the hot pot restaurants, the barbecue joints, the point-and-cook fish markets. The capital city of the fourth-largest economy in Asia, Seoul is a pulsing, twinkling metropolis of the future, a global pow- erhouse of ten million boiling away on the banks of the Han River. It is by turns elegant and gritty, giddy and bone-deep conservative.

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The divide created by the Han is more than geographical. The pig’s feet restaurants are on the north side of the river, in what’s come to be known as the old town; the south bank is home to Gangnam and all it represents. The chatter in the south now is of the potential of Bitcoin, the next episode of Survival Audition K-Pop Star, and the future of the lending economy. In the north, the conversation is increasingly about the health benefits of fermentation, the proper use of a white lotus blossom, and the rhythms of the lunar calendar. In these northern districts—especially Seodaemun, Jongno, Mapo, and Yongsan—the markets still form the backbone of the country’s folk traditions. There, among the stalls selling threadbare laptops and golf irons, the brutalist culinary legacy of Seoul’s street food lives on—in pig parts and critter innards deep-fried, charred, or scalded. It is also north of the Han that artisanal food and time-honored handicrafts are flourishing.

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Jogyesa Temple

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Jogyesa Temple

Bukchon Hanok Village, north of the river, is Seoul’s mecca of tradition. It’s one of the few areas where most of the traditional housing stock has been protected, much of it now converted into restaurants and galleries. And it was there that I met Kim Taek-sang, master distiller at Bukchon Heritage Studio. “In the zodiac, each day has an animal assigned to it,” he told me as his slender fingers flickered over a pink-plastic laundry tub full of rice and yeast. “Our ancestors used to make soy sauce on the Day of the Horse because horses have the darkest blood. Soju is made on the Day of the Pig because pig’s blood is the lightest and the liquor will be clearest.”

Origin stories say the pig, which represents the final day of a 12-day cycle, was the last animal to arrive at a gathering called by the Jade Emperor. A modern retelling of the fable would have the pig carousing with his boss the night before, passing out on a bench, having his image posted on blackoutkorea.com, and missing the emperor’s wake-up call. Which is to say that drinking is serious business in South Korea. Soju is the world’s best-selling distilled spirit, and the top two brands alone move upwards of 80 million cases a year. (The top two brands of vodka don’t sell half that much.)

None of this registered with Kim, whose rheumy eyes and apple cheeks tell of 30 years perfecting the craft he inherited from his mother. Kim’s soju, Samhaeju, is distinct—designated Seoul Intangible Cultural Asset No. 8. Even thrown back as a shot, it is momentarily sweet, then arid, whereas the industrial stuff is consistently tetchy and sterile. Kim was eager to explain why. His mash is made of nuruk, a kind of yeast, and two varieties of rice, as it has been since the Goryeo dynasty (a.d. 918–1392). Before distillation, each six-and-a-half-gallon batch requires a three-stage, 30-day cold fermentation process in a clay pot.

“But by far the most important ingredients are my hands,” said Kim, interrupting his work pebbling rice and yeast together to present the impossibly smooth skin of his pink palms and feminine fingers for inspection. “People ask, ‘Why the extra step? Why mix by hand?’ ” he said, growing animated as he explained his belief that he is host to a unique lactobacillus central to the character of Samhaeju. This is not true of just soju, Kim said. Artisanal kimchi makers who work with their bare hands create better kimchi for the same reason. “No matter how many times they wash their hands, there’s always residue,” he explained, citing a scientific study, the specifics of which, alas, fell in the gap between two languages. “Hand flavor!” he pronounced at last, then returned to picking at the contents of the basin on the table.

Unlike Kim, a number of artisans, restaurateurs, and chefs in the old town spent many years looking outside Korean tradition for inspiration. Lee Jong-gu lived and worked in Milan as a photographer for advertising firms for nearly two decades before finding his calling as the self-appointed guardian of the soban, one of the most neglected traditions in South Korea. A hand-hewn tray table of achingly intricate design, and with cultural significance rooted in Confucianism, the soban was the surface on which Korean life was lived—used at births, weddings, birthdays, funerals, and every meal in between. By the end of the 1800s, individual dining, along with traditional “floor living,” was replaced by foreign ways. But Koreans never let go completely. “Even if we have our giant TVs and sofas, everybody sinks to the floor and leans against the furniture,” Lee told me. “There’s something about us that needs to be close to the floor.”

Lee Jae Ho had a 15-year career as a financial analyst before he started opening restaurants, first a few KFC knockoffs that failed and then, three years ago, Doo-Boo-Ma-Eol. Tucked into one of the many capillary-like alleys off a main street in Insa- dong—an area once crowded with stores for GIs that is now awash in upscale boutiques, cafés, and restaurants—it’s one of the few places in Seoul that makes its own tofu on-site. That’s no small claim in a town where it’s a challenge to find a place without bean curd on the menu. “Big companies produce tofu, but almost no restaurants make the premium stuff in-house,” Lee told me over the din of a custom, stainless steel tofu machine in a narrow room wedged behind the hostess stand. “Twenty years ago every household made their own, but it’s too difficult to do today. Everybody’s too busy.”

As Marcus and I settled into the wood-paneled dining room, the clatter of production was replaced by the rumble of conversation. An elderly couple nodded a greeting and then, when our meal arrived, nodded again with enthusiastic encouragement. One of the most delightful qualities of the bright-red gravy common to so many Korean dishes is the combination of its earthy we-cook-it-all-day flavor and a bright, bottle-rocket fieriness. Add that to the silk pajamas of homemade soft tofu, put it in a piping-hot stone bowl, and that is the soon dubu jjigae (soft tofu stew) here at Doo-Boo-Ma-Eol. The fire went from crackling to infernal when the kkotgae tang (blue crab stew) was served, but the heat managed, somewhat miraculously, to part long enough for the crabs and shrimp to deliver a burst of sweet and briny glee.

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We continued our eating tour with what’s known as temple cuisine, first at Hangaram, where chef Kim Bong-chan anchors his menu with northern dishes like stuffed lotus flower leaves and fermented skate wings, and then at Dadam, where the young chef Jung Jae-deok explained the cuisine’s attraction. “I thought it was boring—too simple to be great,” he said. “I was wrong. When you’re cooking you have to think about where the food comes from, who it’s going to, where it’s going. When you’re eating you have to think about the bite in your mouth, not the one on the plate. That sharpens your focus.” Indeed, the austere charms of this kind of cooking—no fire, no salt, no garlic, no meat—offer a counterpoint to the dense, complicated flavors and meat-centered dishes of the mainstream cuisine. The dishes we ordered at Dadam had evocative names like “Mountain Wrap with Baked Yam” and “Rules, Mercy, and Wisdom,” and they came so elegantly presented that I couldn’t help but think of a neighboring cuisine. “Just like Japanese,” I blurted. Marcus took the camera from his face, revealing a pained grimace, as our interpreter, frowning, declined to translate my blunder for Chef Jung. You get that reaction a lot in Seoul because of the decades that Korea was under strict Japanese control. Conversations have a way of warping toward the relative inadequacy of the Japanese method for everything from cooking to construction.

Marcus and I had heard of a hand-hewn soy sauce operation called Seoil Farm an hour out of town, so we lit out east to visit with its owner, Shu Boon-rye. Thirty years ago, Shu, who used to be a travel agent, started making soy sauce to give as gifts, prompted by the curative effect of her mother’s recipe. Using water from a protected section of the Han, salt from the Yellow Sea, and her own soy beans, she produces some of the most coveted soy sauce in the country.

The main dining room of Seoil Farm looks out on a tranquil garden, with legions of clay pots lined up just beyond a tidy hedgerow. But it’s the banquet, anchored by ganjang-gejang, or raw crab, that this place is fabled for. It’s a deceptively simple meal: Horse crabs—not as pretty as blue crabs but bigger and immensely popular in Asia—are left to marinate, chilled, in a bowl of Shu’s three-year-old soy sauce that has been mixed with house-made fruit vinegar, sugar, ginger, garlic, onion, licorice, bay leaf, black pepper, red chilies, dashima kelp, and fish sauce. After three or four days, the crabs emerge a fragrant, tender pulp known as “Rice Thief,” for the numerous servings of rice consumed while soaking up the broth.

We had no intention of chronicling the meal, but after one greedy mouthful of the crab, Marcus looked up from his plate with a tentative expression: Do we dare? Baleful but resigned, I nodded my agreement, and—to the considerable shock of our hosts—we dragged the entire meal across the dining room toward the better light of the window. Marcus worked fast, and when we reconvened at our table, the meal was raucous and hands-on, complete with appreciative moaning and grateful groaning when our bowls were refilled. As we sped back into the blinking, blaring city at dusk, I pondered how in such a futuristic place, South Koreans seem to have collectively stopped and taken a deep breath. I had seen the effects in nearly every meal I’d had. It reminded me of something Charlie Cho had told me over pig’s feet and beer. “We’ve had wave after wave of building recently, the razing of whole blocks—neighborhoods nearly—to make way for the next shiny tower,” he said. “It’s got us thinking, wondering about what we’ve left behind.”

Stay

Lotte Hotel Seoul 30 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu; 82-2-771-1000; lotte hotel.co.kr; doubles from $328.

The Shilla 249 Dongho-ro, Jung-gu; 82-2-2233- 3131; shilla.net/ seoul/index.do; doubles from $328.

Eat

Dadam Temple cuisine. 97-1 Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-518-6161; entrées from $18.

Doo-Boo-Ma-Eol The place for house-made tofu. 30-12 Insadong-gil, Jongno-gu; 82-2- 735-9996; entrées from $9.

Durim Tofu restaurant. 35 Cheongjin-dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2-720- 0714; entrées from $9.

Hangaram Temple cuisine. 150-gil 4, Nonhyeon- ro, Gangnam-gu; 82-2-547-3330; entrées from $18.

KaeSeong Traditional Cuisine Dumpling hot spot. 30-11 Gwanhoon- dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2-733-9240; entrées from $9.

Seoil Farm Raw crab is the standout. 389-3 Hwabong-ri, Iljuk-myeon; 82-31-673-3171; prix fixe, $15.

Tosokchon Popular soup place. 85-1 Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2- 737-7444; entrées from $14.

See

Café Soban 16-8 Na-gil, Buk- chon-ro, Jongno-gu.

Gwangjang Market 88 Changgyeong- gung-ro, Jongno-gu; 82-2-1330.

Jangja’s Butterfly Brewery 14-gil 43, Insadong- gil, Jongno-gu.

Jogyesa Temple 55 Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu; 82-2-1330.

Namdaemun Market 49 Namchang- dong, Jung-gu; 82-2-753-2805.

Noryangjin Fish Market 13-8 Noryangjin- dong, Dongjak-gu 82-2-814-2211.

Samhae Soju Craft Workshop 1 Bukchon-ro 11- ga-gil, Jongno-gu.

Seoul Folk Flea Market 19-3 Cheonho-daero 4-gil, Dongdaemun-gu; 82-2-1330.

Read

Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, by Bruce Cumings (W.W. Norton & Company; $19).

Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-sook Shin (Vintage; $15).

Cook

The Kimchi Chronicles: Korean Cooking for an American Kitchen, by Marja Vongerichten (Rodale; $33).

Watch

Oldboy, Park Chan- wook’s thriller set in Seoul (2003).

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