Tteokbokki, snail cream & curly fries: Exploring Seoul

I’m going all Zero Dark Thirty on the egg-bread man. I narrow my eyes and take a step forward. “So is it baked?” He’s unfazed. “Try one,” he says in Korean, smiling widely. They look delicious. But I need answers, and it’s too early in the interrogation to snack. So I shake my head firmly. He hands me one anyway. As I pay, I turn to Narae Yun, my friend-guide-interpreter in Seoul. “Ask him how he makes egg-bread.” She translates. He shrugs, pulls another tray out of the oven and chuckles mysteriously. “Fine. I’ll figure it out myself,” I say sulkily, taking a bite and expecting it to taste like breakfast. However Gaeran Bbang is a world away from conventional eggs and bread. It’s light, fluffy and sweet, with an unexpected streak of salt and hit of fragrant spices. Reminiscent of donuts, nursery rhymes and Sunday mornings. I’m foxed. And more determined than ever to extract the recipe.

“Try again,” I ask Narae, holding up my notebook in an attempt to look intimidating. “He says there are 10 ingredients,” she translates. “Nutmeg?” I ask. He smiles. “Cinnamon?” Smile. “Mace?” Smile. I lean forward and glare, “Then what is in the batter.” As Narae listens to his answer, nodding her head thoughtfully, I smile victoriously. She turns to me seriously, “He says to tell you Indian women are very pretty.” Foiled. And now I’m too flattered to pick a fight.

Like Mr. Egg-Bread, Seoul is unexpectedly charming. I’m warned about insurmountable language barriers, live octopus dinners and dog soup before I go. A few days in the multi-faceted city prove that the stereotype, like most stereotypes, is a caricature of the truth. While admittedly all three features exist, they’re certainly not the norm. The pulsating city is a blend of the familiar and exotic, especially when it comes to food. From my hotel in Hongdae, the hip university quarter, I explore coffee chains offering frappes, espressos and waffles, as well as quirky cafes. (Over breakfast a guest even tells me about a café where guests can pet lambs as they drink their cappuccinoes.) After shopping for quirky cocktail rings, ‘Gangnam’ style ankle socks and trying on South Korea’s famed ‘snail cream’ at a bright cosmetics store, Narae and I wander into a chic restaurant designed to look like a nursery school. The short menu offers interpretations of street food. We order tteokbokki: chewy glutinous rice tubes (called tteok) and fish cakes soaked in Korea’s signature fiery gochujang sauce. “All of us ate this after school,” says Narae, adding, “The idea is to remind people of their childhood.”

Nostalgia seems to be a popular theme here. The food is closely linked to history, and locals are as sentimental about the past as they are enthusiastic about the inevitable wave of Westernised food. It’s an interesting balance: traditional tea houses, retro restaurants and multinational donut chains, all packed on any given night. Since we’re dabbling in history, we decide to eat Budae Jjigae for dinner. “It’s Soldier Stew,” says Narae, as the waiters hand us bibs to tie around our necks. I’m eyeing the bib suspiciously, as the table grill — a standard feature in most traditional Korean restaurant — is fired up, and the dish set on it is filled with spam, sausage, ham, rice cakes, kimchi inexplicable slices of American cheese and a broth. “We were very poor after the Korean War, so we made soup with whatever we could buy from the American soldiers,” says Narae, breaking a pack of instant noodles into the mix. The incongruous mixture of U.S. army rations spits and sizzles (hence the bib) as the ingredients merge and the broth cooks down, transforming the dish into a hearty stew.

The next day, I head to Gangnam to meet my hipster friend Joy Miryeo, who’s still recovering from last night’s party. Holding her head, she gingerly suggests we begin with lunch — a spicy seafood stew ideal for hangovers. The restaurant is stylishly dim, and reportedly a favourite with K-Pop stars. A heavy tray filled with squiggly octopus, juicy prawns and knobbly crab is set on the table grill, along with the ubiquitous tteok, sprouts and minari (Korean greens). As the broth thickens, it becomes increasingly rich, powerful and moreish.

We wander through Isadong’s warren of art galleries and souvenir shops after lunch, admiring the fish-shaped Bungeoppang (sweet cakes filled cinnamon-laced red bean paste). There are peculiar spiral cut potatoes, dipped in cheese and chilli powder. And dramatic but fairly tasteless ice cream hooks: foot long curly cones filled with vanilla ice cream. I sneakily eat a steaming Hotteok pancake, stuffed with molten brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped nuts as a pre-dinner snack.

Dinner is Samgyeopsal at a noisy restaurant, where we swap stories and do soju (the local rice wine) shots. Equipped with dangerous-looking scissors and tongs, Joy expertly cuts luscious strips of pork, and cooks them along with kimchi on the table grill. Following custom, we wrap the meat in lettuce and sesame leaves along with sliced onions, sprouts and kimchi, before dipping it into a trio of powerful sauces.

Emboldened by the soju, we continue to party at Prost, a rollicking bar in Itaewon, popular with backpackers, tourists and American soldiers. More proof that Seoul has a flair for bringing diverse elements together — whether they’re ingredients, cultures or nationalities — to create an alluring brew.