International fashion photographer and native Seoulite, Paul Won Jeong offers up his definitive guide to food and drink in Seoul
Seoul marches on its stomach: a fitting state of play as you'd be hard pressed to find a city as jam-packed with places to eat and drink. Incredibly dense, spread across rolling hills, you quickly lose hope of any semblance of straight lines. The city is not, however, beyond the wisdom of Paul “The Provider” Won Jeong who has volunteered as my guide to Seoul’s best Korean BBQ.
Paul is emblematic of a young Korea that has taken fashion by the reigns like never before; well travelled even before he became a globe-trotting fashion photographer, splitting his time between New York, Russia and Korea. On an afternoon in late March, I find him at a row of tented food stalls called Pojangmacha, debating whether he will be able to renew his already full passport between trips to Bucharest, Tbilisi and Moscow this month. We toast to the coming adventure with what will become the guiding spirit for our exploration of Seoul: Makgeolli.
Unlike the more infamous Korean spirit, Soju, Makgeolli is rarely found outside of Korea. Actively fermented and requiring refrigeration, it's a rare export with a milky complexion, a taste generally malty, fruity and lactic with a slightly granular texture and a fizzy finish. It's a perfect companion to the unctuous, spice-laden delights of Korean BBQ.
Seoul's most famous indoor food market, Gwangjang, is our first food destination. In no immediate rush, we decide to take a wandering route through the adjacent Dongdaemun vintage market. A series of snaking alleys packed with vendors of every speciality, selling vintage Supreme to lighting to American military vintage worthy of Nigel Cabourn's inspection.
GWANGJANG STREET FOOD MARKET, 88 CHANGGYEONGGUNG-RO, JONGNO 4(SA)-GA, JONGNO-GU, SEOUL
Arriving at Gwangjang Market we find the place is so packed, with scents, wares, and people (in that order) that navigating our way through the crowds is more like swimming than walking and it seems apt that swimming alongside are endless tanks of fish, sea worms, eels, lobsters and octopus.
Paul’s barometer for good street food is the number of old men at the bar, and we find a crowd of them at the central intersection of the market. The pojangmacha has heated seats and the two attentive servers are soon bringing more plates our way than we have the surface area for. Kimchi, Soondae (a sausage made of noodles and jellied blood) and what appears to be steak tartare (called Yukhoe) is laid before us. More Makgeolli is passed around in traditional bowls, my theory is: harder to spill but easier to polish off.
Stuffed beyond capacity, buzzed enough to rate a taxi 5 stars, and no more than £25 down, I retire to sleep off my food coma, and prepare for a gopchang-gui Korean BBQ dinner that Paul has promised will be fatty enough to give a cardiologist cause for concern, and smokey enough to permanently taint anything I wear for the meal.
GOPCHANG ON FIRE, 228 HYOJE-DONG, JONGNO-GU, SEOUL
Gopchang on Fire feels like entering a cutscene from Blade Runner. Families in varying outfits, street fashion to traditional, crowd around boiling plates. The high ceiling is masked in a fog and the floor is traced with thick bound pipes that feed gas to the many stoves.
Paul orders gopchang-gui, which is essentially fat sausages, or more accurately fat packed sausages. They arrive alongside glimmering slices of liver, mushrooms, and onions - all soon cooking away before us. Bottles of Makgeolli arrive and hold the tide of hunger brought on by the meaty perfume of BBQ smoke as the contents of the grill brown and simmer.
Gopchang-gui is a meal in a mouthful. I mean that. My head is spinning after the first bite, as my western belly comes to terms with the deliciously lardy, smokey unknown. But the real spoils are the flavour it bestows on its neighbours, and for better or for worse the entire plate is soon clean, empty bowls and full bellies clamouring for more Makgeolli.
SANWOOLIN 1992, 60 SEOGANG-RO 9-GIL, CHANGJEON-DONG, MAPO-GU, SEOUL,
Across town, we visit Sanwoolin 1992, an establishment famous for its menu of Makgeolli that is long enough to give the Old Testament a run for its money. In what I learn is typical for Korean bars, food must be ordered with drinks, so Korean pancakes, known as Buchimgae, pile up along with emptied Makgeolli bowls. The variety in the liquor is impressive, from subtly fermented to wildly fizzy, smooth to borderline granular and nutty to the sweetest of fruits.
Lush as they are, these fruits bear a hangover the following morning, which our Sunday morning and afternoon are dedicated to.
Paul, however, saves the best for last the following evening...
GOLDEN PIG, 149, DASAN-RO, JUNG-GU, SEOUL
Sunday night? 2300? No reservations? No problem.
Golden Pig is a miracle. Occupying two floors - a touch byzantine and a turn noir - the joint is known as the pinnacle of modern Korean BBQ. An 8 cm thick slab of pristine pork is rolled out in front of us, toasted, trimmed, grilled, and diced again. In the final golden act, meat is separated from bone before us.
Perhaps last night's Makgeolli binge had left me in an effervescent mood, or perhaps Tokyo was still on my mind, but Paul and I knocked back Suntori highballs as the whole feast was prepared on the grill by rotating members of staff, each trimming turning, and keeping us off the meat until it was at its sizzling prime. The taste was beyond description but the variety across the different cuts, in both flavour and preparation, was the real shocker and showpiece.
The crowning jewel of Korean BBQ complete, I turned to Paul with a question that had become a sort of tribal dinner chant over the past few days:
“Makgeolli?!" I asked. And we sank another one down.
This article was contributed to END. as part of the ongoing ‘Highly Recommended’ series, providing an insider/outsider experience of global cuisine, nightlife, and travel as experienced by industry leaders pushing the boundaries and defining the zeitgeist in their respective fields.