When we first drove into Seoul from Incheon Airport, I was shocked. Seoul wasn’t the charming city I remembered twelve years ago. It was buzzing with lights, the view of the mountains obliterated by monster skyscrapers, and the streets were wide and full of crazy cabbies. That night, as I went to sleep surrounded by cold marble in my 500 square foot hotel room designed to resemble a 20th century French chateau (I was staying in a hotel named Artnouveau City. Could it have gotten any cheesier?), I was crestfallen. Where was I, and how did Times Square follow me back to Korea?
The next day, I woke up with plans to move to another hotel. There’s so much marble one can take outside of a bathroom. But then we went upstairs for our complimentary breakfast and things quickly picked up. I had expected the typical continental breakfast you get at most hotels, but instead, we got breakfast Korean-style! Everyday there was junbok jook (전복죽, abalone rice porrige), a huge stone vat of bubbling kimchi jigae (김치찌개, kimchi stew) with pork belly, kim (김, roasted seaweed), rice, and some sort of japchae (잡채, stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables) or haemul japtang (해물잡탕, seafood and vegetables in a thick soy ginger garlic sauce) with lots of oyster mushrooms, which, by the way, was my favorite. The oyster mushrooms in Korea are amazing. There was also toast, yogurt (Korean and American-style), an omelet bar, sausages, and pancakes or French toast for those not wanting to have Korean food for breakfast. Of course, I’m not one of those people, so I started every day with jook, kimchi jigae, Korean yogurt (more of a thin yogurt drink), and coffee. One day, I took a break from Korean food to have toast and eggs, but the next morning, kimchi jigae was back on my plate. The only really bad items at the breakfast buffet were the pancakes and the French toast that were tough from sitting out all morning, and the salads that were never fresh. There were always some green gunk, and the mix of greens were never very interesting beyond cabbage and watercress. Trust me, kimchi jigae and anything with mushrooms was the way to go.
By the way, as is most places in Korea, Artnouveau is fancy. Above are photos of the dining area we ate our free breakfast in every day. Most of the people there were dressed to a T. Artnouveau City is a long-term residence hotel, so there were many business people there in their professional attire. David and I, however, lowered the class of the joint a few notches every morning in our jeans, rumpled t-shirts, and flip-flops. Breakfast ends at 9:15am every morning, so at 9am, it was always a mad rush from our beds to the dining room. Thankfully, everyone was nice and no one seemed to mind. Just be prepared to feel like you stepped into a first date scene in a Korean drama.
Joo Hyun making notes of the tourist attractions for me.
After breakfast, in better spirits, David and I met Joo Hyun, my friend Soo Hyun’s younger sister, who took on the challenge of being our tour guide while her sister was away on a business trip. She was a brave soul who took on many of David’s million questions. But seriously, she was so good, a guy on the subway even asked her if she was a tour guide. We couldn’t have asked for a more lovely person to show us around. Although, I did tell her she denied me the full local Korean experience by refusing to hold my hand in public. Next time, I want some hand-on-hand action!
We spent the first day at the National Museum of Korea getting our culture on until it was time to eat. Joo Hyun took us to eat ddukboki (떡볶이, spicy rice cakes in a red pepper sauce) nearby in Ichon (이촌), but my favorite find of the day was bbopki (뽑기, Korean sugar candy)!
Bbopki is simply caramelized sugar mixed with baking soda so it gets puffy. It’s very similar to English honeycomb candy, but with half the air pockets. When I was little, I used to make bbopki on a metal spoon over the stove. Of course I could never wait long enough for it to cool and I would burn my mouth each time. It’s probably best to leave the bbopki-making to the professionals. In Seoul, at every busy cross section of town, you’ll find someone selling bbopki on the street (KR ₩600/US $0.50 – KR ₩1000/US $0.85). The vendor we ran into in Ichon wisely chose a spot near an elementary school. While I was waiting for my candy, several kids in school uniforms stopped by for their afternoon sugar fix.
The bbopki man was pretty cool. He was really proud of his bbopki and made sure I got photos of the entire process. First, he melts down the sugar and baking powder, then he pours it out on a metal sheet, and then presses in a shape. When the bbopki cools down, the candy’s all yours.
The shape is important, because if you can eat around the shape without breaking it, you win another bbopki for free. My mom said when she was little, her and her friends would hang out all day by the bbopki man trying to get the center out perfectly. The last few stages are critical, and you have to lick instead of bite. One wrong move, and your bbopki can come crashing down onto the sidewalk. Me, I didn’t bother, and I chomped up the whole thing. I love bbopki. It’s super sweet, slightly bitter, and light and airy from the baking powder.
It’s strange how food cures all. The first night I was missing Hong Kong, but by the end of the second, I was loving Korea. I guess while some are ruled by their hearts or their minds, I’m ruled by my stomach.
Various Locations in Seoul