Seoul has an array of vibrant new restaurants and food shops that show its progressive and forward momentum on the international food scene.
For locals, it’s a breath of fresh air to find foreign restaurants sprinkled around the city that bring new flavors closer to home.
But time and time again, whether one is a native or an expat living in Korea, “matjip,” the more humble “mom and pop” restaurants that serve tried-and-true local dishes as authentic as they come, are still enjoyed by all. It is refreshing to see that honest food has no demographics, and food lovers in Korea can embrace modern global cuisine and still rough it at their local matjip.
As a foreigner I find myself more intrigued by the foods of the more established hole-in-the-wall restaurants, compared to the glossy nouveau types or foreign restaurants that do their best to bring global cuisine to Korea.
It’s hard to be disappointed when you are eating local food -- and that could be said for wherever you are in the world. This is especially so when comparing the high price one pays for foreign cuisine here in Korea, which usually has its original flavors diluted. It is less of a novelty to eat an 8,000 won taco without cilantro or lime than, say, a freshly made tofu kongbiji jigae dished out for decades from the same restaurant.
The heart of winter, bookended by holidays when the highs and lows of this bleak season are felt most keenly, brings cravings for the comforts of warmth and anything stimulating to the senses. The melding of two popular dishes -- kalguksu, or hand cut noodles, and yukgaejang, a spicy shredded beef soup -- is the perfect hybrid for what one craves to eat in the winter. Yukkal, as it is called, is not a dish you would find on most menus, but at the matjip Munbaedong in Yongsan-gu near Samgakji Station it is the only dish on the menu.
|Two classic Korean dishes, yukgaejang and kalguksu, come together at Munbaedong Yukkal (photo cred: Christine Cho)|
|Lunchtime line at Munbaedong Yukkal in Yongsan-gu (photo cred: Christine Cho)|
Munbaedong has been serving yukkal for over 35 years at this non-descript location, with a number of offshoot branches in Seoul. Its yukgaejang is loaded with shredded beef brisket and scallions in a well-balanced red pepper broth that is mellower than other versions but still rich in beef flavor. Alongside this comes a heaping portion of kalguksu, milky white in color and softer in texture, similar to that of a slightly overcooked flat rice noodle. Diners may combine the noodles with the soup at their leisure.
A delightfully satisfying combination, one wonders why this noodle soup cannot be more readily found. Little can be said for the interior, as the wear and tear is just as expected and accepted from this cramped and dingy matjip. As with so many other restaurants in Korea, a well-made, earnest meal will always outshine its surroundings.
By Christine Cho (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Christine Cho, a Korean-American expat in Seoul, has been eating and cooking her way around the world for 16 years as a private chef. -- Ed.
34-1, Munbae-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Yukkal 8,000 won