A Word of Warning about Korean Food in Seoul

Korean food in a word?  AWESOME!

In a second word? dangerous.

First, the awesome.

To state the obvious, Korean food in Korea is everything you’d expect, only better.  Miyeokguk, seolleontang, toboki, doenjangjjiegae, bibimbap, and all the different banchan you can imagine, only not loaded with salt or polluted with corn syrup and other processed foods. There are thousands of little restaurants specializing in one or two dishes (it’s not uncommon to see seating for ten to fifteen, a miniature kitchenette smaller than some camp sites or food trucks, and a menu with less then four items), run by mom and pop (and now grandma and grandpa) proprietors for decades.  Even Korean barbeque (you’d think in Korea, it would just be called “barbeque,” but the sign on every restaurant we went to, even the non-tourist ones, said otherwise), had meat marinated in crushed Korean pears (you’d think it would just be “pears”) instead of corn syrup and roasted over actual charcoal where you can still see the wood grains of the sapling.  This isn’t the gas burners or even the flavorless brickettes common in Korean barbeques in America.  Here, you can smell and taste the wood smoke, with the meat melting like butter underneath the slightest crisp of that hint of char.


Cookie, you finished an entire 16 oz platter of Galbi by yourself.  As a dad, I couldn’t be prouder.

Second, the danger.

In many American recipes, there’s a phrase to add black pepper to taste to adjust the proper level of spiciness.  If you’re one of those people, you may starve in Korea amidst the bountiful culinary awesomeness of Korean cuisine.  The non-spicy dishes are often filled with black pepper. While not all places are spicy, the spicy dishes…

The below dinner is a great example of the perils of Korean cooking.* 20150212_194407

At the top of the picture is a bowl of ramen that was turned by this particular restaurant into a bowl of fire. At the bottom of the picture is a bowl of toboki served by this establishment as a bowl of hell.  You’d think that the bowl of hell is hotter from that deep red color, but from a pure Scoville perspective, the bowl of fire is actually hotter: it will melt your stomach, torch every square inch of your intestines, and set the toilet on fire afterwards.  It’s not a coincidence that Koreans adopted bidets with a national gusto.  With that in mind, you’d be tempted to think that the bowl of fire is worse than the bowl of hell.  That’s a fatal mistake.

The bowl of hell, while not as blindingly hot as the bowl of hell, doesn’t wash off.  Yeah, that bears repeating.  Once the inferno starts in your mouth and tongue, that red, sticky, pasty stuff torturing every fiber of your being DOES. NOT. COME. OFF.    Do not be fooled into thinking the canned and bland gochujang you had in the states bears any resemblance to the napalm concocted in some of these kitchens by the deceptively kind, old grandmothers in the kitchen.

Which brings me to the second part of the warning:  Koreans are not big on drinking water with meals.**  Most places will have a water cooler or a water dispenser in the corner.  Larger places will have little, emphasis on little, 4 ounce steel cups in a little sterilizer cabinet.  Many places will have smaller paper cups, or worse, a paper envelope that will hold maybe 2 ounces of water if you’re lucky.  Secure ample water ahead of time (bring your own bottle) before sampling local dishes, as you never know when you might stumble upon that one restaurant summoned from the sixth level of damnation serving hellfire with a side of torture.  Trying to put out the five alarm fire from the bowl of hell in slow, 2-ounces increments with water slowly dribbling out of an empty and obviously neglected water cooler into a flimsy envelope that wont stay open is quite painful.


Envelope and cups next to a standard 8 ounce can for scale.

You’ve been warned.


*  As a matter of perspective, I’m not some bland Midwesterner who can’t handle his heat.    Jalapenos?  Might as well be bell peppers.  Texas chili?  Tasty.  As you know, Cookie, Grandma grows habaneros in the front yard, and these… are far worse than habaneros.

**  Is this ability to tolerate and enjoy heat genetic?  Mommy is perfectly fine with this stuff.  Even you, at 3, aren’t too bothered.  I’ve turned into a fire breathing dragon in need of the paramedics.

Changdeokgung Palace -Secret Garden

Behind Changdeokgung Palace is its Secret Garden, also known to any out-of-shape and sleep-deprived father pushing a stroller as the aerobic exercise from hell.  Don’t get me wrong, pushing a stroller up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden is infinitely better than carrying a sleeping toddler up and down the tortuous hills of the Secret Garden, but there are certain stretches of the place that are quite steep, and other stretches of the place that involve carrying the stroller and the sleeping toddler up a series of steps.

The tour starts ominously up a walled road up a sloped hill.  The tour guide warned of a strenuous walk lasting a several kilometers and kept looking worriedly at our direction.


On the other side of the first hill, we reached a artificial pond surrounded by four pavilions, the king’s library, sitting room, and accompanying structures.  The pond was frozen over due to the -8 degree weather (I never got whether that was in Celsius or Fahrenheit, though it was sufficiently cold enough to make me question our sanity in the timing of our vacation choices). On the plus side, the tourist sites certainly were not crowded.


The king’s library, facing the frozen lake:


For parents with kids, this is the last bathroom opportunity (except of course, for the woods of a national treasure with a stern tourist guide and patriotic citizens standing watch) for the next hour.

Further along is a lake in the shape of Korea (not pictured are the three small austere huts constructed by one of the crown princes to devote himself to study and the greenhouse constructed by the Japanese when they converted the Secret Garden to a zoo) .


What follows next is a tortuous climb up a mountain. The road is unpaved, though dense (it may have been frozen), so that the only difficulty in pushing the stroller was the incline (I think I saw a mountain goat slip and die out there) and the height.  When we reached yet another pavilion near the top, the tour guide saw the gasping people struggling to stand and called a break.  Those intrepid enough to continue could reach the wine pavilions.  The rest would wait for our return.  Most stayed.

Mommy and I took you to the wine pavilions, where one of the kings had carved little streams into the rock, built pavilions amongst the streams, and floated wine cups between them during poetry readings.  You, of course, were asleep, and didn’t benefit from Mommy and my back breaking climb.


After a long way down, we reached the recreation of a nobleman’s house.  After the splendor of the palace, it seemed rather plain, though the clean lines and crisp colors made if fit perfectly into the park.


Small note to my fellow stroller people, the exit to the Secret Garden at the end of the tour consists of 40-ish steps hewn into a rocky hillside.  To avoid climbing that stairway with a stroller, you can exit by retracing your steps (thankfully avoiding the crazy climb to the wine pavilions as the nobleman’s house is close to the scholars huts).  As the Secret Garden is only accessible by the tour, this will allow you the chance to see the garden a second time without a tour guide hurrying you along.

Changdeokgung Palace

Our first stop in Seoul, was Changdeokgung Palace (also known as things you may have missed during your nap)

Main Palace:


Inside the throneroom (it’s interesting to see the incorporation of electric lightbulbs in a place that would otherwise fit comfortably into ancient history… well, minus the stanchions):


Like any tourist, I spent a lot of time looking up.  The artwork on the roof is exquisite.


The doorway to the king’s offices, modified to allow a car to park underneath the overhang.


Random courtyard.  It was really difficult to push the stroller (and carry the stroller over the inexplicably tall door jabs while ducking the short door frames) and take decent pictures. I was really thankful for the stroller however, given the size of the Secret Garden behind Changdeokgung Palace.


Inside the king’s bedroom, converted to a meeting hall.  According to the tour guide, there’s almost a national phobia of fire in these palaces, and the incorporation of electric lighting over torches was enthusiastic.


The residence of one of the relatives of the king (sorry, jet lag and sleep deprivation enforced by several kicks to the head from a spinning toddler in the middle of the night has adversely affected my memory).  You’re going to have to find the purpose of this structure, yourself, Cookie.