Photo Credit: Nikao Media
Traditional, modern and delicious
by Agnes Chung
On a crisp, clear April morning in Seoul, the craggy landscape contrasts against the blue sky, and Azaleas, cherry blossoms and canola flowers dress the roadsides with white, pink and yellow. Seoul, South Korea’s capital and largest metropolis is home to about 20 per cent of the nation’s 51 million people.
In this historic pocket of Seoul, character and tradition prevail. At lunchtime, excitement and chaos pervade the food area as throngs of tourists and office workers file in. Some cluster around stalls waiting for service. Others hurriedly eat their lunches on narrow counters shared with large bubbling pots, and piled high jokbal (pig’s feet), sundae (blood sausages) and mayak gimbap (sushi rolls). Enterprising and friendly ajumma (middle-aged women) stir pots of soup, stew and spicy rice cakes and holler offerings at the passersby. If the sights and aromatic fogs wafting from the cooking aren’t sufficient to persuade you, the taste will.
Fascinating Street Food
The selection of traditional Korean soul food at Gwangjang Market is amazing. Their top specialties: bindaetteok (deep-fried mung bean pancakes) and mayak gimbap (steamed rice, pickled radish, carrot wrapped with seaweed, dipped in mustard-soy sauce). Other fares include tteokbokki (spicy, soft rice cake), japchae (glass noodles), maeuntang (spicy fish stew), bulgogi (grilled marinated beef), kimchi mandu (dumplings) and Korean signature bibimbap (rice topped with vegetables, chili, soy, egg and meat). The array of kimchi (seasoned fermented vegetables) and banchan (tapas) were irresistible. Diners can also pick their favourite seafood and have them cooked by one of the nearby restaurants.
With so many choices, it can be daunting for first time visitors. If you are unsure, select a busy stall popular among locals and pick a dish that appeals to you. A bowl of japchae cost around CAD $3.50. Food is inexpensive and delicious, but don’t expect Canadian kitchen hygiene standards, as it is “street food”.
Textile, Linen and Vintage Fashion Shopping
The century-old Gwangjang Market is one of South Korea’s oldest and largest traditional marketplaces, housing over 5,000 stalls and shops, and averages 65,000 visitors daily. Its textile market is the largest in Seoul – popular for silk, satin, linen, vintage clothing and tailored hanboks (traditional Korean attire). Most stalls and shops are open from 9 am to 6 pm daily. Only clothing and food stalls remain open on Sundays. The market is located in Jongno, Seoul’s economic and cultural district. Here, historic palaces, villages and markets co-exist with towering skyscrapers, plazas, trendy bars and restaurants.
Step back in time to the Joseon Dynasty (Korea’s longest-reigning and last imperial dynasty) at Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Deoksugung Palaces and Bukchon Hanok Village. The quaint village houses hundreds of hanok (traditional Korean houses) with many converted to cultural centres, restaurants and tea or guest houses. Note, there is no public washroom at the village and wheelchair access is limited.
Crosses and Missions
Crosses punctuate Seoul’s skyline. A church can be found every few blocks. Two of the world’s largest Christian congregations are Seoul-based: Yoido Full Gospel Church and Onnuri (All Nations) Community Church. The Gospel has taken a quantum leap in this nation. In 2010, roughly 30 per cent of South Koreans were Christians, an incredible jump from one per cent in 1900. A 2012 Pew Research Center reported that Protestants form the majority followed by Catholics. South Korea is the second largest missionary-sending nation after the United States.
Incheon International Airport
The country’s prime gateway is efficient, very clean, spacious and bright. Serviced by friendly staff, the airport offers free use of facilities like wifi, computers, charging stations, showers, children’s playgrounds, skating rink, gardens to unwind, and free Korean cultural entertainment. With a mall ambience, there are many places to dine, shop, and beauty up. Travelers laying-over for under 24 hours can enjoy free city tours. Advance online booking is recommended.
For 10 straight years, Incheon has ranked as the world’s best airport in two different categories by Airport Council International. The bullet train from the airport to Seoul, and onward to PyeongChang (2018 Winter Olympic venue) is expected to operate by end of 2017.
Hyatt Cooking Classes and Dining
Three minutes away, the Grand Hyatt Incheon offers cooking classes lead by the hotel’s Executive Chef. Dining at Restaurant 8 is fun with five action-packed open kitchens, option to dine at any of the eight restaurants offering French, Italian, Japanese and Korean cuisine. Their signature weekend dinner buffet is popular with locals.
Rooms are spacious, reasonably priced for a great service luxury hotel. Free airport shuttle service runs every 15 minutes from 5 am to 11 pm. The airport to downtown Seoul by Express Train (AREX Line) takes 43 minutes, making it an ideal hotel for short-term stay in Seoul – whether for business or leisure.
Seoul is easy to get around even for English speakers, and is safe for solo female travellers. My journey evokes memories of mouth-watering food, of lives marked by hard work and determination, of the Christian community’s zeal to carry out the Great Commission. The flavours of Seoul ignited my craving to savour more of this intriguing destination.