Side Trip: Solo Diner in Seoul

‘Go big or go home’ is Seoul’s unofficial motto when it comes to eating.

After five days, I left Seoul stuffed with food and the realisation that it’s not the best city for the solo diner.

In an effort to justify the countless food photos I took, I present to you my five days on a plate (or numerous plates). Please, don’t judge me…it was all in the name of research.

Breakfast

As in Osaka, many of the cafes opened mid-morning – OK with me, I was happy to be cocooned in my duvet for longer in the below freezing temperatures – and served light breakfast options (if any).

Most cafes served milky coffee (hello flat white, I’ve missed you more than you know), a welcome change from the put-hairs-on-your-chest drip coffee I’ve become grudgingly accustomed to in the Japanese ‘burbs.

One morning I braved a busy local restaurant sans English menu, hoping to try the old point-and-nod technique to order a mystery-meat soup combo for breakfast. I didn’t receive service, so took that as a sign to stick to my flat whites.

Nutty Cloud at Dorrell Cafe, Seoul
The Nutty Cloud at Dorrell Cafe

The winner: The ‘Nutty Cloud’ is a mix of espresso, nutty cream and cold milk. Chunky and creamy…this was a truly delectable drink. While I know many a coffee purist would turn their nose at this mix and think it abhorrent, I challenge you to expand your mind and try it!

Snacks and Street Food

Street food is a glorious thing! There is nothing better than walking to your next destination and finding food on the way that is cheap, simple, transportable and delicious. Osaka has some street food offerings, like takoyaki, but Seoul is absolutely teeming with foods of the street.

Mung bean pancakes
Mung bean pancakes at Gwangjang Market

Bindaetteok: chewy, oily, crispy mung bean pancakes made with freshly ground beans (as in, right in front of you) and veggies. Portion: snack for 2 Humans with Same-Sized Eyeballs and Stomachs (HuSSESs).

Street food in Seoul, South Korea
Gyeranppang (right) and taikyaki (a snack also found in Japan) at a vendor near my hostel.

Gyeranppang: a lightly poached egg on top of a sweet and fluffy brioche-like bread. This was probably my favourite snack and I found vendors selling it off the main food market routes. Portion: 1 per HuSSES (OK fine, eat 2 if under duress!)

Seoul snack
Tteok-bokki at unknown location (I can probably drop a pin in the general area).

Tteok-bokki: a moreish dish of stir-fried rice cakes in a sweet/sour/spicy thick tomato sauce. This was just part of the meal my host suggested as a light pre-dinner snack! Portion: lunch for 1.5 HuSSESs or snack for 2+ HuSSESs.

This is a great blog I found for a more comprehensive guide to Seoul’s street food.

Are you still with me? Only 1 million more calories to go…

Lunch

Now, while I don’t feel like I need to justify my decisions, I would like to point out that I walked 6-10 hours a day in extreme weather conditions! That is all. Now onto lunch.

Kal-mandu: mixed dumpling and noodle soup at Gwangjang Market. An open air food market and -10°C seem an unlikely pairing, especially given that many of Seoul’s shopping malls are underground, but with a heated seat and a steaming bowl of noodle soup it was in fact a match made in heaven. Portion: 1 per HuSSES (next time I would pass on the dumplings, the hand cut noodles are the main attraction, and to allow for more pre- and post-meal snacking).

Samgyetang: Korean Ginseng chicken soup at Tosokchon Samgyetang. I followed the crowds to this restaurant before visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace. There was a line, but it moved quickly. If you’re not feel a bit icky picking over a carcass (come on, let your inner caveman/woman out!) then it may not be the restaurant for you. While the flavours and textures weren’t really my thing, the all-you-can-eat kimchi was. Plus, solo diners can study the detailed how-to-eat-your-lunch instructions (this ain’t my first rodeo, guys!) instead of their phones for a change. Portion: spot on, 1 per HuSSES.

Dinner

Shhhh stomach, you’ll get to sleep soon…

Seoul fried chicken
Extra crispy fried chicken

Chimaek: simply fried chicken (chi) and beer (maek), a famous Korean pairing I’d read and heard so much about. I don’t eat much fried chicken and I have to say this was bloody great. I think it’s twice or thrice fried, to make it extra crispy. Portion: 1 bowl per drunken group of students/old men.

Bibimbap: there is an art to eating a bibimbap, an art that I have not yet mastered. Mix the rice, meat and vegetables quickly, firmly pack it against the sides of the bowl and if you’re lucky, the rice will turn toasty, golden and crunchy. As in Japan, the delicious side dishes (called banchan in Korea) were the hero of my meal.

Spicy Chinese noodle dish
Spicy noodles at Kumsan Noodle Factory.

Tantan mien noodles: a Chinese noodle dish, prepared by a Japanese chef, in Korea. I eat a lot of noodles in Japan and was craving a bowl, so I was happy when I found this small 8-seater restaurant that served only this one dish.

Dessert?

I really couldn’t… OK, just one.

Seoul street food
Hotteok at Namdaemun Market

Hotteok: a sweet pancake filled with the sweet or savoury ingredient of your choice. My honey pancake was so good, I went back for a second. Needless to say, the second was not as sweet as the first. Portion: 1 per HuSSES (don’t be greedy, like me)

Final thoughts

My mum’s dad has a saying (not sure if he can claim copyright to it):

I’ve had ample sufficiency to fill my capacity and anything else would be an overindulgence.

Well said Grandad, but have you ever visited Seoul?!

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