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By Way of Korea

South Korea   |   New York

A Korean food blog and travelogue inspired by

an epicurious New Yorker's journey around South Korea

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Kalguksu & Dumplings at Gwangjang Market (Jongno District, Seoul)

Updated: Jun 12, 2019


Though primarily experienced with our sense of taste, food tastes best when appreciated in different ways with each of our five senses. Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest traditional markets in Korea, has always been one of my favorite places in Seoul that allows you to enjoy food in such a way. And so, on our way to dinner on a frigid evening, we found it difficult to pass up on a quick detour for a "snack" at the market.

When we walked into the market area, the smells, sounds, and movements I expected were missing. A couple of vendors remained, closing shop in an alley that seemed to have already concluded business for the day. But after realizing that we were looking at textile and clothing shops (which close a lot earlier than the food stands), we continued down the alley, where we soon found ourselves being lured by a faint, but growing smell of fried foods.

Following our noses, we reached the Food Alley, a visual explosion of movement and colors ㅡ swirls of smoke rising from fryers and steamers and vendors tirelessly cooking and plating orders against a background of, fiery-red ddukbokki, golden brown assortments of jeon, and rolls of mayak kimbap bleeding green, orange, and yellow.

Among the calls of unyielding food vendors beckoning you to their tables, the clinking of soju glasses, and the post-work conversations had over them, you can hear each food cluster's unique soundtrack (like the sound of millstones grinding mung beans and the hiss of batter hitting hot oil in the Bindaeddeok Alley).

After surveying all that the alley had to offer, we still weren't sure what to eat, but a dewy-skinned woman called us to her island of steaming dumplings, where she was cutting noodles out of dough with a knife. We had been cold, hungry, and looking for something "soupy" to eat, so we accepted her invite and ordered a bowl of kalguksu to share. As we waited for our noodles, we had a prime view of the greatest one-woman show. Our host worked the dough to crank out noodles (sometimes "dough flakes" for sujebi) which she'd throw in the boiling water for a few minutes during which she'd cook more batches of dumplings and replenish customers' kimchi upon request with smiles.


The sound of a blade cutting through dough and just grazing the cutting board and the subtle snap of the dough being pulled apart were two of my favorite sounds growing up in Flushing with my grandma, who'd often generate a floury storm in the living room to make a month's worth of dumplings from scratch. Dozens of dumplings would take up the entire freezer and had to be eaten for weeks in various ways. The flour or dough left over from her dumpling project would always be used to make kalguksu or sujebi.

Our large, steaming bowl of kalguksu arrived topped with squash, seaweed flakes and a heap of black pepper. Its aroma was quite prominent, but the black pepper did not overpower the broth's deep anchovy flavor; it gave the soup a bold edge. Unbothered by the cold (partially thanks to the heated bench), we slurped away at the chewy noodles and deeply satisfying soup until we were too full to even consider eating anything other than dessert after. Dak-hanmari had to wait another day.

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"If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel - as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them - wherever you go."

Anthony Bourdain's unmatched relish for adventure and humble approach to food, cultures, and humanity left an indelible impression on my younger self. Imparting on me the courage to veer into the unknown, he inspired me to embrace my vulnerabilities and seek adventures and growth beyond the comforts of home.

 

In July of 2017, I boarded a one-way flight to Seoul, South Korea. Within the first week of arrival, I signed a lease for an apartment and by the end of August, I had accepted a job offer that relocated me to Pyeongchang and Gangneung, where the Winter Olympics were soon to be held. From there, I had the rare opportunity to explore much of the greater Gangwon Province's beautiful mountainous and coastal regions and their distinctive foods. Once or twice a month, I'd return to Seoul or travel to an unfamiliar region to poke around alleyways, markets, and mountains in search of more good eats and adventures.

 

By Way of Korea is a storytelling project inspired by the food, places, and faces I encountered throughout Korea. By sharing my fondest memories, notes, and images of Korea, I simply hope to play a small part in piquing greater curiosity about Korean food and culture in my readers.  My content will heavily spotlight, but not be limited to Korean food and culture. 

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