Seoul Food 8-6-2003

There's no better way to get to know a culture than through its stomach

By: Allen Salkin

Korean food is “in” and tour operators have a range of interesting options for travelers wanting to immerse themselves culturally in this trendy and delicious cuisine.

Though few visitors to Korea will want their entire vacation to revolve around food, many might take a cooking class or cooking lecture as part of their experience of the country. Many of these programs are commissionable to travel agents.

Absolute Asia’s luxurious eight-day “Cultural and Culinary Traditions of South Korea” tour serves up a hearty helping of food experiences. The tour, which is commissionable, features hands-on cooking classes, demonstrations at culinary academies in Seoul and visits to fresh-produce markets. On the first full day of the tour, clients are taken to a morning cooking class in Seoul, then on an afternoon city tour, an evening buffet and a traditional performance. Day four includes a drive to the cultural capital of Kyongju, with visits en route to a Korean folk village, Homan Museum and Chonju National Museum.

All told, there are three cooking classes during the eight days. The first-class version of the tour, which has no minimum group size and does not include airfare from the U.S., is $3,540; the luxury version is $4,010.

Absolute Asia sales manager Lane Nevares said many clients choose to mix a few parts of the culinary tour into customized itineraries. “For a destination like Korea, people aren’t going to fly to Seoul just to do cooking classes for three or four days and fly home,” Nevares said. “It’s part and parcel of a whole experience that people are looking for.”

Also commisionable, and an easy addition to itineraries for clients at any budget level, are visits to Yoo’s Family House. In this traditional Korean home located near Sam Chong Park in Seoul, four generations of the Yoo family welcome visitors and introduce them to cultural and culinary traditions. The “A” visit starts with a complete “dado” traditional tea ceremony, and includes dressing in traditional costumes and instruction in etiquette and tea preparation. After that, there is a lesson on the making of the most famous Korean delicacy, the pickled spicy cabbage called kimchi. Next are folk games, followed by a meal. Finally, the 5½-hour experience winds up with an instructional lesson in calligraphy. It costs $60 per person.

The Yoo family also offers a la carte classes in kimchi cooking (one hour, $38), tea ceremony (90 minutes, $25) and calligraphy (90 minutes, $25). Christy Yoo, a family member, also runs a Seoul-based tour agency and has worked extensively with agents from Europe and Australia, but not many yet from the United States.

For clients who already have a love of Korean food, consider booking a trip to coincide with the Gwangju Kimchi Festival, held annually in the southwestern “City of Art.” Also, clients might enjoy the annual Food Korea international food show, held in November, where the latest and best Korean delicacies are on display.

A client may not go to Korea for the food, but any trip there that doesn’t include trying the local fare is an opportunity lost.

Korean Delights

The Korean National Tourism Organization recently completed a survey of tourists’ five favorite Korean foods with information on where to try the best versions in Seoul. Here are the results.

1. Galbi: The word means “rib” in Korean and it’s a dish featuring beef or pork ribs cut into chunks, then served broiled or grilled. Suwon City, near Seoul, is famous for its galbi restaurants. In Seoul, Pyeongsan Garden restaurant is known for its galbi. (720-4, Daerim-dong, Yeongdeungpo-gu; Tel: 02-845-6666)

2. Bulgogi: Thinly sliced beef or pork marinated in soy sauce, green onions, garlic, sesame and sesame oil, served grilled. Try Choujeong restaurant, which has views of the Hangang River. (125 Gwangjang-dong, Gwangjin-gu; Tel: 02-2201-8585)

3. Bimbimbap: A dish with minced meat, vegetables, eggs, sesame oil and hot bean paste mixed with rice. It is served everywhere and the ingredients vary by region.

4. Dolsot Bibimbap: A variation of bibimbap, it is served in a heated stone pot, which works to retain the heat inside the dish while it is being eaten. The pots are hot enough to sizzle. Many tour groups dig into it at Cheongsachorong, a restaurant that specializes in Korean table d’hote and features Korean folk dancing from 7 - 7:30 nightly. (738-34 Hannam 2(i)-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul; Tel: 02-794-1177)

5. Mandu: A Korean-style dumpling with minced meat, tofu, kimchi and vegetables wrapped in a thin flour skin. Mandu is widely available throughout Korea.