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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Emerging Food City - Seoul

The last time I was in the capital of South Korea was during a stop over from a US trip on our way back home. That was a very long time ago though.  The annual Olympics of the World Model UN, however, gave me a chance to take a peak at this once-upon-a-time beneficiary state.

The World MUN, as they call it, is a diverse university conference that started in 1991, founded by several Harvard students who wanted to create a different Model United Nations experience. The World MUN is a platform for students from all over the world to be able to express their views on international issues. This is participated in by universities and colleges from different parts of the globe to converge in one place and perform a mock UN session. Not only will the students become well-versed in the procedural mechanisms of international organisations or conferences in general, but will also be adept at developing networks, diplomatic, leadership and cooperative skills, as if one is in the UN itself as they tackle real-life political, economic and social issues.

On its 24th year, it is a great way to experience Seoul. For a country that was devastated due to the Korean War in 1950 and lasted for 5 years, it has truly been focused in regrouping its resources to what is now a cosmopolitan city.  Rebuilding the country as a whole was intensive between the 70s and 80s and the results are laudable. Transportation and tourist facilities are very accessible despite the fact that not everyone here can speak English. Public safety is not an issue. One feels secure even if travelling alone or walking the streets at night in the downtown area. The locals generally let you alone and keep a polite distance, which as a visitor, one can appreciate well. Seoul turns out to be a very visitor-friendly place.

Billeted somewhere in downtown Myeong-dong, Seoul here gives a European feel, complete with really cold spring weather (-2 to 6 degrees). For accommodations, between 3-star and swanky hotels on one hand, and guesthouses or backpacker inns on the other, I suggest one takes the latter. 

The rooms may be small, and breakfast limited to bread or instant noodles, but it is cheap and clean.  Expect that one will have to pay cash upfront though, but this will make checking out a breeze later.

If going to Seoul, aside from it being a great convention or conference venue, one goes there to shop for clothes, fashion accessories and electronics. If neither of these are a consideration for travel, then there’s the food. They’re usually cheap and quite a variety. (At the time of visit, Philippine Peso is 0.035 Korean Won).

My favorite is what they call Chimaek, it’s an amalgamation of Chicken and Maekju, or Beer, in Korean. Every few shops you see along the streets offer this but my go-to place is Two Two Chicken in Myeong Dong.

Servings are good enough for 2, or if you’re just in for a snack, then 3-4 people can share. Nevertheless, one of our student delegates wolfed down 1 serving all by his lonesome. It was that good.

In fact, for our entire one week stay in Seoul, my husband and I would have Chimaek once a day either as dinner or heavy afternoon snack. Anytime is a good time to get some chicken and beer. (Expect to spend KRW10,000/ Php300/USD6.)

This is usually eaten with pickled radish which they serve first to cleanse your mouth, and then later, to balance the deep-fried flavours of the chicken. 

One can also ask for 2 flavors in one serving, the most common being the regular flavored fried chicken combined with the chili garlic. Either way, great with the local brew.

Another dining option will be the grill. If on a budget, one kind of meat is enough since most Korean grills will serve it with a variety of banchan, also known as their numerous side dishes that include a variety of kimchi, salad greens, and something sweet to balance the other flavors.

For our part, we chose 2 servings of pork belly, seasoned with the sauces served, and wrapped in lettuce leaves.

Another very Korean dish that shouldn’t be missed is Grandma Chicken. This is a whole chicken stewed in ginger and ginseng and said to revitalize and envigorate many a local. The chicken is stuffed with sticky rice and stewed tenderly; a comforting kick to cold weather.

After a good meal, try out any one of their dessert bars. There’s the Korean version that serves flaked ice served in a variety of flavours. 

Most of these shops are attractive to the female populace, and if ever you see one or two guys here, it’s probably because their girlfriends dragged them there. For my part, my husband was obliging and shared with me the bar’s bestseller, the Snowflake (KRW5,000/Php175/USD3.89).

A bowl carrying a big mound of flaked ice was brought to us flavored with milk and honey, on a foundation of almond jelly cubes, covered with ground sweetened almond powder, and sprinkled with almond flakes. Even if I eat this on my own, the icy flakes is very light, fluffy, and had just the right amount of sweetness. In fact, when I get the chance to eat this dish again, I’ll leave the husband at home. 

Another version of the dessert bar here is the Taiwanese one. This time, the ice is shaved and embellished with chunks of fruit or cake and drizzled with syrup. We got the one with the chocolate flavor. It was brought to us as one chocolate hill with brownie chunks, cherries, chocolate pudding and dressed in chocolate syrup just to show they mean business. This shaved ice bowl is heavier than the Korean one, but hey, I’m not one for complaining. They also serve this in mango or strawberry (if in season) flavours.

South Korean cuisine is an endless adventure. There’s their street food culture to consider too, but that is another story entirely. Stay tuned.

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