Last year, our plans for a girls trip to Seoul to celebrate an important birthday were quashed due to the 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan. This time around we were adamant – we weren’t going to let a little thing like a North Korean missile launch stop us from our 72 hours of fun. We left Tokyo early Monday morning for a very brief 2 hour flight (how come more people don’t go to Seoul?) where we met up with Mona, our long lost friend who took off to “grayer” pastures (Hong Kong) last June. Our adventure began with a walk from the hotel (Lotte – totally great spot – especially our “Ladies Floor” rooms) to Namdaemun Market for a quick look around and lunch. We did our due diligence and looked to see which hole in the wall had the most customers and sat down to a delicious lunch of bibimbap (a hot stone bowl filled with rice, veggies and other assorted yumminess), dumplings and fried rice with a fried egg on top. And lots of kimchi – deliciously spicy fermented vegetables – something we would see at EVERY meal. And of course, beer. It was so good, we ate everything. We were the only foreigners in the place and the proprietress watched us as we ate everything. It became obvious very early on that this trip was going to be about two things – food and more food.
Monday Night – 6pm: We met up with our guide Daniel Gray – from O’Ngo Foods – a cooking school that gives food tours. We walked from the school through narrow alley ways as he pointed out some interesting buildings and talked about the neighborhood that we were walking in (Insadong) until we came to a small little shack with several oil drum bbqs set up. Our first stop was for Garmaeggisal – a special cut of pork located near the pig’s diaphragm. It’s grilled over hot coals with mushrooms and then eaten in a lettuce leaf that’s been smeared with various pastes and toppings – including very spicy green chills and korean garlic cloves. While eating, we learned a new drinking game (Titanic) and learned that in Korea there aren’t as many rules about how you eat your food as there are in Japan – basically anything goes. After having eaten everything in front of us, it was time for a walk…to the next restaurant.
Our next destination was down another back alleyway in a typical korean home called a Hanok. The star of this eating show was actually a drink; Bbongip Makgeolli – Korean rice wine. It’s served cold in a metal tea pot and poured into metal bowls. It resembles watered down skim milk. It was quite tasty and easy to drink and of course it was accompanied by some more food. Huge triangles of fluffy ricotta like tofu arrived with a delicious soy dipping sauce. We also ate different types of pickled roots – including ginseng. This is when we learned the next drinking game; 007.
After polishing off everything there, we walked some more and took a dessert break. Kkultarae is a dessert made from honey and cornstarch that is pulled and stretched into thousands of gossamer strands and then wrapped around different nut fillings. The dessert I could take or leave however the guys that make the dessert must be seen to be believed: http://inews6.americanobserver.net/articles/seoul-street-food
We were running short on time, so we hopped a bus to our next destination – Andong Jjimdak – steamed chicken of Andong. A huge steaming platter of chicken parts, vegetables, potatoes and sweet potato noodles in a thick brown sauce arrived at the table. We moaned at the size of the platter – not sure how we would possibly get it all down. But bit by bit, bowl by bowl, we started to make a dent. I didn’t realize how good a sweet potato noodle could taste. And to finish it off, the waitress dumped a bowl of crunchy well done rice into the remains and mixed and chopped it all up and we of course had to try that as well. Our last drinking game of the night – the mighty metal twist off cap from the rice wine – flick it and it stays on, you are safe, flick it and it flies, well then you have to drink.
Our final destination was a night market to eat Bindaetteok – mung bean pancakes. Walking through the market around 9 at night, outdoor stalls where old women stood in the middle cooking for patrons seated on makeshift stools made me feel like I was in an Anthony Bourdain No Reservations show. I loved it! The mung bean pancakes were greasy and hot and salty and tasted a lot like a latke – a Jewish potato pancake. But they were not easy to get down due to the amount of food we had already consumed. The beer helped.
Saying goodbye to Daniel temporarily – we would meet again on Wednesday, we jumped in taxis and went to The Dragon Hill Spa where Korean ladies in black bras and panties were waiting to scrub our bodies raw. Yes, raw. Dark chunks of skin begin to emerge beside you on the plastic bed. You try hard to ignore just how dead the skin on your body was, when the lady grabs a handful of it and shoves it in your face saying something indecipherable but you’re pretty sure its something like “wow, you are one dirty girl”.
Freshly scrubbed with slicked back pony tails, we stumbled into a taxi and somehow found our way home. It was late, we were full and we were clean.
Tuesday Morning: The alarm went off way too early but our 7:10 departure from the hotel for the DMZ was calling us. Down in the van, dressed in the proper outfits (no worn jeans, no sandals, no shorts, no training pants, no sleeveless shirts and no leather pants) we were on our way to North Korea. After the long list of rules were read aloud, we arrived at the main building for a 20 minute “briefing”. Basically, what happened in the past 100 years or so to bring us where we are today. It was quite informative. Outside, we boarded a military bus which would take us the rest of the way to the border. We pulled up at a very large concrete building that was very cold and very empty inside. We exited the building on the back side and came face to face with another large building that looked pretty much like the one we were just in, and four bunkers – 2 baby blue and 2 metallic. The large building on the other side was the North Korean’s equivalent of the building we just came through. Between the two blue buildings was a cement slab which separated the North from the South. The guide said that anyone can cross it but once on the other side, there was no coming back. We entered one of the blue bunkers and inside were several conference tables – with one in the very middle of the room horizontally – with three microphones installed down the line. This was the actual border between the two countries and you could trace the same line outside with the concrete slab. On the other side of the conference table was North Korea and the door out. We were allowed to walk to the other side, stand with the guards and take pictures. It was creepy! We were told that when meetings are held between the two countries, representatives approach the table from both sides through their doors. And interestingly, the North Koreans also give tours just in the opposite direction.
Once outside again we stood and stared at the large North Korean building and the two soldiers who stood and stared at us – through binoculars. We were pretty sure our tall blond friend Katherine was causing quite a stir.
The tour included a few more hot spots like the propaganda village where North Koreans continually play messages about how they are lucky to live in Paradise, the site where two marines were beheaded in an axe fight, the area where a defector from North Korea ran away and the Freedom Bridge where prisoners were exchanged. Lunch was at a nearby bulgogi restaurant which was not good but we weren’t expecting much (the only bad meal of the trip).
Back in town, we made a stop at Insadong for shopping.
Dinner that night was at a place that Daniel our foody recommended. It was called Jungsik and the chef also has a place on Harrison Street in Tribeca. We had to choose 5 different plates from a tasting menu. The food was amazing. I started with a crunch salad of seaweed and quail egg, followed by a pasta dish with clams, garlic and jalepeno and then pork belly and then duck and for dessert strawberry ice cream. The amuse bouche included a bite sized burger and the dessert after the dessert had small jellies shaped like Korean masks. I’ll definitely give it a try when I’m back in NY.
Still to come…massages at the all girl Spa Lei.
We thought we had reservations for a one hour massage at 10:45pm but when we arrived it wasn’t quite as clear as we thought it would be. Luckily, Efrot was able to communicate with the woman in Japanese and we secured sports massages at 11:20 which gave us about 30 minutes to walk around and check out the place. Think Roman baths with all woman. Everywhere you looked there were women of all shapes, sizes and ages, sprawled about – nude with interesting towel placements. There was a room where you could get a hip bath – which we weren’t sure what that was and it wasn’t made much clearer when the large older woman started smacking herself between the legs to try and explain. Later on we would find out that the treatment involved sitting on a stool naked with an open hole where wormwood steam would emerge in order to detox the uterus. We passed on that one.
There was another area that was made of bricks and resembled an American Indian sweat lodge. We went inside for about a second before having to run out to try and catch our breath. A large room with tatami had many ladies sprawled about while they watched a Korean soap opera. Libby decided to join them. We left her there for awhile until our treatments were ready to begin. She said it was fine, because her show was over anyway. Boy do I wish I had a camera to catch a photo of the ginger laying about with all the Koreans. Its something I’ll laugh about again and again.
The massages were in one room with mattresses on the floor. Bright lights, another soap on the TV, each of us laying side by side. Even though there was no oil and there was a sheet on top of us, it was the hardest massage I have ever received. My feet were flipping and my hands fluttering, the pain was intense. But I felt really really good afterwards. Another late night taxi home.
Wednesday morning: we woke to pouring rain. This put a bit of a damper on our last day in Seoul as we had secured a van and Daniel to show us around and we planned on walking through neighborhoods, stopping and shopping and of course eating.
We started the day with a return to Namdaemon market for a few last minute purchases we hadn’t made on Monday. From there we drove to Samcheon Dong – the Hanok area with old traditional Korean homes. Several of the homes were rented to artisans – we visited a knot house – literally a place where women sat all day and made knots out of silk rope. These decorative pieces were hung from their traditional style dress – Hanbok. They were gorgeous but outrageously expensive.
It had been about two hours since last we ate so we stopped to eat again. This time at another favorite spot of Daniel’s called BooksCooks. It was housed in a traditional Korean home but it had been modernized and the inner courtyard was covered over. The place was totally cool and the scones and brownies, delicious. I chose the Omija tea – which tasted like cranberries. Amazing.
From tea we went to Gahoedong and attempted to walk around but the rain was forcing inside to…eat!
Lunch was at a galbi jjim restaurant – very spicy braised short ribs. This dish is seriously hot and they serve you various things along with the beef to eat when your mouth is on fire. But its so good you just keep eating it. We also had many different kinds of fried pancakes with vegetables, pork, oysters and zucchini. And of course Kimchee – it goes without saying that this appeared at EVERY meal in various forms.
After one more shopping pit stop, our time had run out. We drove to the airport, said goodbye to our friend Mona and boarded the very short 2 hour flight home.
I’m not sure why this city isn’t on everyone’s bucket list – it has so much to offer and if you live in Tokyo its ridiculously close –
It’s always good to leave something behind…it gives you a reason to return.