The best food in Korea

By Ben Preston, co-founder of ViaHero.com

Korean food has always been one of my favourite types of food, albeit one I barely understood. Then, a short while ago, I had the chance to travel to Seoul for a close friend’s wedding. During that trip, I was able to get a week-long crash course in Korean food from my friends (who also happen to be local foodies and overall great guys). Here are some of my favourites:

5 – Kimchi Dumplings

Namdaemun Market is a sprawling street market in Seoul selling second-hand goods, clothing, and most importantly, tasty food. While some of the sit-down options here seemed a bit too tourist focused (I would avoid a place called ‘Noodle Alley’ at all costs!), the gems of Namdaemun are on the street. Using my general rule of eat-where-lots-of-locals-eat, I stumbled across a small stand selling freshly steamed kimchi dumplings. Warm and inviting, this was the best street food that I ate and was perfect on a cold day.

kimchi-dumplings
Kimchi dumplings

4 – Banchan

Banchan are the nearly endless variety of tasty small plates of food that come with almost every meal. Kimchi was almost always present (yum!) which always added a spicy and complex complement to any meal. My favourite thing about banchan is that they are served right when you arrive to eat and refills are endless. I am pretty sure I could live in Korea for five years and still not sample every type of Banchan.

bonchon
Banchan

  

3 – Kimbap

I’ve always associated maki (rice and fillings, wrapped in seaweed and then sliced) to be a classic Japanese dish. Then I came to Korea, and found out about Kimbap: the Korean cousin of maki filled with uniquely local ingredients like kimchi, daikon radish, and pork. Kimbap is cheap, filling, available everywhere, and super tasty. Pork sushi?  Yes please.

  

kimbap
Kimbap

4 – ChiMac

Now we are getting to the big leagues. ChiMac, derived from the Korean words for Chicken and Beer, is a Seoul classic. One of the coolest parts of eating ChiMac in Korea was trying the different styles. The first place I tried was in the super trendy Gangam district and was filled with young business people out from work and what looked like lots of first dates. The chicken was perfectly crispy and crunchy, topped with herbs and sauce, and served with a crisp ice cold beer.

But my favourite of numerous ChiMacs was actually from an old-school ChiMac joint that I could best describe as a Korean pub. Definitely not a place known for the ambiance but loved for the chicken, the ChiMac came both plain and in a sweet-spicy sauce. The meat was tender, so juicy and flavourful, and the coating was crispy and unlike any fried chicken I have ever had. It was simply amazing. This was one of the dishes that I would travel back to Korea just to eat again.

chimak
ChiMac

1 – Korean BBQ

Choosing between ChiMac and Korean BBQ was nearly impossible – both were so different and amazing in their own way. However, the sheer diversity of Korean BBQ in Seoul put BBQ on top.

We started with some classic beef BBQ: self-cooked tasty morsels wrapped in lettuce and loaded with garlic, kimchi, and Ssamjang sauce, yum! 

Then we moved on to what is surely one of my favourite meals ever: Pork-centric Korean BBQ. Slabs of every kind and cut of pork cooked by a pro right at our table. The best was the sliver of pork belly, super tender and flavourful, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Another must-try food here was a variation on Kimchi I had never seen before: cooked below the pork on a slanted grill, pork juice flowed down and cooked the kimchi. This pork-juice-cooked-Kimchi was oddly reminiscent of Polish stuffed cabbage, and was one of the most unique I ate on the entire trip.

korean-pork-bbq-1
Korean Barbecue

But perhaps the meal that put Korean BBQ over the edge for me was a fusion of Korean + Mexican food that was unexpected and amazing. The chicken was marinated in a blend of Korean and Mexican spices, and then grilled at the table along with tortillas. Instead of classic lettuce wraps, we assembled little packets of grilled chicken, Korean Nacho cheese, mint leaves, and onions for perfect bitesized pieces of happiness.  The restaurant even served a boiling plate of cheese with tortillas chips inside – what I can only describe as Korean Nachos.   

The food in Korea was diverse and incredible. My only advice would be to try to find a local to take you around, or make friends quickly, to get the true Seoul experience.

The best meals of 2016

The following article features five food experts and their favourite meals of 2016.


Tomé Morrissy-Swan, author of Appetite for Consumption food blog

2016 has been a pretty shitty year. Tragic terrorist attacks and plane crashes, political upheaval across the world, and a spate of celebrity deaths, from beloved musicians and actors to Johan Cruyff, one of the best footballers of all time, have continually shocked us. On a more mundane level, Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Champions League, the Euros and the Ballon D’or is particularly grating.

Thankfully, the culinary world has provided a much-needed tonic to the overbearing doom and gloom. When everything around us seems to be pointing to the end of the world as we know it, food continues to remind us of the more comforting things in life: home, family, travelling and the fact that we have more in common with each other than what separates us (hummus and falafel, after all, are equally as Israeli as they are Palestinian).

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit several gastronomically iconic places; indeed, I was so inspired by the cuisines of such far-reaching places as Israel, San Sebastian and Vietnam that I began to write about food.

In a year in which I was to sample such a vast array of superb and authentic dishes, it was almost impossible to choose a single highlight. In December 2015, I was blown away by shakshouka and hummus in Tel Aviv; in May, the pintxos of San Sebastian were a pleasant surprise, especially when washed down with the cheap and excellent local wine; staying with a local family in Lazio, central Italy, was a delightful introduction to the famous Italian homegrown and home-cooked food culture; in Vietnam, I ate arguably the best sandwich of my life; and green curries in Bangkok and Chiang Mai elevated the dish to favourite-curry status.

Choosing a single favourite, therefore, was an arduous task. Awards, for me, are always slightly dubious, based solely on subjectivity, particularly for anything artistic. How can a certain film be better than another in a completely different genre? How do you ascertain whether a hip hop album  is better than a rock one? Equally, how do you decide whether pho in Vietnam is better or worse than sushi in São Paulo?

My favourite meal, therefore, is one that gave me the most pleasure, changed my views on that particular dish, and partly influenced me to write about food. In August, I spent a day in Naples, southern Italy’s largest city, a baking, chaotic, vibrant place. I fell in love with the town, and that was before I tried the famous Neapolitan pizza. As we arrived at our chosen pizzeria, it was sadly closed. Luckily, a few doors down was Al 22, a traditional, no-frills pizzeria established in 1935. Less than five minutes after ordering, two piping hot pizzas, a Margherita and a Margherita with Salami, arrived. After our first bites, my mother and I stopped, looked at each other, and had to pause to reflect, it was that good. I was so inspired, my love for pizza reignited, that I subsequently began a quest to find the best pizza in London. Simple, cheap food, when made properly, beats any smart, modernist fare. The Neapolitan pizza, at €5, was the best meal I had in 2016.


Ben Preston, of blog.ZenEuro.com, a website specialising in travel and food

Picking my favourite food from this year is hard, mostly because I had the chance to do quite a bit of travelling and try lots of unique cuisines from different places. Some of my favourites would definitely be the pizza from Bonci Pizzarium in Rome, the churros from El Moro in Mexico City, and the tapas from Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona. But, if I could only pick one thing that stood above the rest, I think it would be the classic Greek food at Thanasis in Athens.

Thanasis is in the centre of Athens along a street of restaurants, and is known by tourists and locals alike for having some of the best Greek food in the country. For me, having been raised on souvlaki and tzatziki from Greek immigrants, getting to experience the foods from their origin was an other-wordly experience.

The simplicity of the food really amazed me: The tzatziki, creamy and fresh, drizzled with olive oil, and served with grilled pita dusted with paprika, was just perfect. The lamb souvlaki, succulent, juicy, and served with ripe Greek tomatoes and red onion, was everything I ever wanted a souvlaki to be. I would without question travel to Athens, and Thanasis, again just for the food.

Blog.ZenEuro.com

ZenEuro.com


Lucy Treganna, traveller and food lover

A strong contender for the best food I ate this year is at Pizza 4P’s, an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant in Hanoi founded by Tokyo-born Yosuke Masuko. Although living in Hanoi meant I was able to enjoy some incredible Vietnamese cuisine, the craving to ‘go for a Western’ did sometimes set in, and on the two occasions I ventured to Pizza 4P’s it far from disappointed.

Thanks to the ‘half & half’ option they have available for most pizzas, between us my friends and I were able to sample a range of toppings: garlic soy beef, okonomiyaki and salmon sashimi being among the creative Asian twists which impressed. There are also more traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas on offer; on my first visited I opted for a classic margherita and a three-cheese option combining mozzarella, parmesan and camembert on a béchamel base, which was served with a side of honey to drizzle over and complemented the flavours surprisingly well. It was the perfect choice for someone as cheese obsessed as I am, especially as Pizza 4P’s uses its own homemade artisan cheeses produced in the Vietnamese highlands of Da Lat.

On my second visit I selected the anchovy burrata, and the ham, camembert and mozzarella served on a garlic mushroom sauce base. Not just the best pizza I’ve eaten in Asia, but amongst the best I’ve had in my life!


Nicholas Hsien, food blogger, http://www.rockabitebaby.com

Frog legs as a famous culinary delicacy may be one of the few things the French and Chinese have in common, aside from perhaps both governments’ attitude towards the United States. Having eaten frog legs in their Chinese incarnations – usually stir fried or stewed with ginger and spring onion, or cooked together with rice congee – my gastronomical highlight of 2016 was the French take on frog legs, or cuisses de grenouille.

I tried this dish on a recent trip to Lyon, France. The frog legs were lightly battered, and pan fried over a skillet containing butter, garlic and some herbs (including a generous dose of parsley). Et voila! That’s pretty much it, simple as it may sound. The frog legs were supple and juicy – and for anyone undecided about trying, the meat’s texture is like that of a perfectly done quail without any trace of gaminess and evidence of animal fat beneath the skin. Even my dining partner who had never eaten frog legs previously was pleasantly surprised when tasting it. Soaked in garlic butter with fresh parsley, and lightly salted, it was not too heavy or saturating despite the richness experienced in one’s first bite, and goes well with either wine or beer. C’est parfait!

Josh Dell, journalist and co-creator of Fried Culture, a documentary focusing on London’s fried chicken scene, to be released in February 2017.

The best food I’ve had this year was the truffle polenta at Machneyehuda in Jerusalem, widely considered to be the best restaurant in Israel. Nothing makes me smile more when eating out than the phrase “we’re going to need another” the second you have your first mouthful of a dish.

The polenta was one of those dishes. Creamy and gorgeous, the tastes that emerged with every bite have stuck with me throughout the year. Want to try it in London? Look no further than Machneyehuda’s sister restaurant (or at least some kind of sibling), The Palomar on Rupert Street, W1. Almost exactly the same dish is served there, and from experience I can tell you it does not disappoint in the slightest.

The best sandwich in the world?

As someone who eats a sandwich pretty much every day, it’s perhaps surprising that a humble dish of meat (usually) in bread can still blow my mind. Very few sandwiches are memorable; 90% of those I eat are bland supermarket meal deals. 

Every so often, less than once a year, however, I’ll eat a perfect, unforgettable, sandwich. Such occasions are few and far between, they can be counted on one hand. The salt beef sandwich at Katz in New York; a Navajo flatbread in Austin; a steak in a small baguette I would always get in Brazil on the way to the beach; falafel in Jerusalem. All these I remember like they were yesterday, and would pay good money to eat again.

In Hoi An, a pretty, coastal town in central Vietnam famous for cheap tailoring and UNESCO-protected architecture, a new sandwich was unexpectedly but happilly added to the list. Aside from pho, the banh mi is probably Vietnam’s most famous dish. One of the few positive legacies from the French colonial period, perfectly textured baguettes are filled with pate before being completed with a variety of ingredients.

Available everywhere and cheap (usually £1, though I ate a fantastic one in Hue for around 25p), the banh mi is one of the staples of Vietnam’s vibrant and varied street food scene. 

I used to watch Anthony Bourdain religiously, and therefore know of his love for Vietnam and its food. I had completely forgotten, however, that he visited, and loved, a small restaurant in Hoi An serving one of the best banh mi around. Fortunately, an encounter with an Australian who had eaten there every day during his stay reminded me. Promptly, I made the two-minute pilgrimage from my hostel to Phuong Banh Mi, hidden away and easy to miss.

Phuong Banh Mi

In no time at all, the sandwhich arrived, on a baguette so crispy on the outside, yet so fluffy that it rivalled anything you can find in France. The pate was ample and strong in flavour, and a perfect counterbalance to the chilli sauce. I went for what looked like the traditional option: pate, ham and roast pork, and there was certainly a lot of each. Banh mi are usually finished off with cucumber, carrot and lettuce. The balance between ingredients was perfect and the pork more flavoursome and tender than any other I’d had. 

I now have five sandwiches on my list, and picking one over all others would be tough. But the banh mi at Phuong’s in Hoi An deserves its spot, and should not be missed by anyone visiting Vietnam.

Banh mi

Cooking in Hanoi; killing a chicken in Phong Nha

Tucked away in the quiet backstreets of the Tay Ho district of Hanoi, far from the frenetic world of the city’s Old Quarter, where moped-dodging is the main activity, sits Maison des Saveurs. On a leafy, idyllic road, the most beaufitul street in Hanoi, as I told our hostess, Lam, whose house also serves as a private restaurant, bases her cooking classes, which accommodate up to six people. 

After some initial trouble finding the house, me and Lucy, my cooking buddy for the day, were greeted by Lam, a friendly and welcoming Vietnamese with fluent French and English, and her dog Hello. We got acquainted over artichoke tea, which was surprisingly good, and sesame biscuits, discussed the menu (spring rolls, green papaya salad, bun cha and minced pork in leaves) and headed to the local market, accompanied by stories about Vietnam and explanations about various food products.

Market

Back at Maison des Saveurs, it was time to get going and Lam, aided by her very helpful team, laid chopping boards and knives out for us. After a quick demonstration, with Lam’s assistant grating the carrots and green papaya, and marinating them with salt, sugar and vinegar, it was our turn. First step, slicing pork shoulder for the bun cha (Grilled Pork with Vermicelli) and marinating with shallot, lemongrass, fish sauce, oyster sauce, honey, five spice, salt and pepper. Our pork slices were distinctly less pleasing to the eye than the demonstration, but they tasted just as good. 

The spring rolls were no easier to make, but it was a fun process. Minced pork was mixed with sliced glass noodles, dried mushrooms, onion, bean sprouts, carrot, herbs, fish and oyster sauce and egg, then placed on precariously thin rice paper and folded into shape. My spring rolls would not have won any awards for presentation, and I almost sliced through my thumb in the process. Lucy’s were much better, a feat not unnoticed by our teachers, to my dismay. Finally, the rest of the minced pork was wrapped in leaves and we were good to go. 

Pork skewers and spring rolls
Spring rolls cooking

On a small charcoal grill on the patio, tended by another helper and Hello, the pork skewers slowly grilled. Meanwhile, we tried our hand at frying the spring rolls: lots of oil and constant turning, with chop sticks of course, and chatted to our hosts, who were all extremely hospitable. 

Thirty minutes later we sat down to one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia. The bun cha was succulent and perfectly charred, especially flavoursome when dipped in the special sauce, and eaten with coriander and Thai basil. The wrapped pork was also a delight. The spring rolls, however, were the highlight, considering how much work, and pain, went into making them. And who’d have thought I’d enjoy a dish featuring such a heavy dose of mushroom? 

For anyone visiting Hanoi and interested in food and cooking, a trip to Maison des Saveurs is a must. Lan left me inspired, both to eat Vietnamese food and to make it at home. 

Several days later, a stop at Phong Nha national park and another unique, though more solemn experience. The national park is situated in central Vietnam, a 10-hour bus ride south of Hanoi and close to the border with Laos. Famous for its gigantic caves, including Paradise and Dark caves, which Matt and I visited, and Son Doong, the largest cave in the world, which is almost impossible to visit and extremely expensive, the park features endless motorbike rides through impressive jungle-covered mountains, housing wildlife such as tigers and elephants, which we sadly didn’t see. 

A few kilometres down the road from the main town, however, down a dirt track, sits the quaintly-named Pub With Cold Beer, a family-run restaurant which serves chicken and, of course, cold beer. You don’t have to kill your own chicken, but you can, and we decided it was a unique chance to be completely in touch with our meal, something I had not experienced before. When we informed the waitress that we wanted to do it ourselves, she seemed happy and surprised, perhaps not many foreigners opt in. To be sure, the group who arrived at the same time as us weren’t able to go through with it. 

The killing itself was not as difficult as I thought it would be, the hardest part being the loud squawking as she chose the bird. After that, as Matt held our chicken, it was quiet and seemingly peaceful, a slit of the neck draining it of blood without movement or a sound. It was by no means a nice or fun thing to do, and I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that one should be able to kill an animal to eat it, but it was a profound and sombre way to get closer to food than I’ve ever been before. 

After 45 minutes, the chicken arrived, marinated in lime, chilli and herbs, served with morning glory, steamed rice, and the best peanut sauce I’ve tasted, all grown on the family’s land. 

Our chicken

    Bangkok

    On one hand, Bangkok is an overwhelming introduction to Asia. Smog, heat, humidity and precariouly open sewage are the delightful first impressions of the densely-populated capital of Thailand. First impressions, however, are rarely accurate. Bangkok is in fact more oderly than first appears: public transport is cheap, efficient and comfortable, where the train won’t take you, boats will, queueing is mandatory, making Britain appear a chaotic free-for-all, and everybody is willing to help a lost foreigner. While the sheer volume of tourism can be off-putting, almost 20 million visitors per year, the benefit is that locals are accustomed to foreigners, making Bangkok the perfect entry point into the region.

    Above all, there is one reason why Bangkok is the perfect place to arrive. A culinary capital, exciting and tasty meals lurk on every street corner. You are never far from an old lady with a cart, a cooker, and some produce, ready to prepare unbeatable noodles or superb grilled meat and fish. Vegetables and fruits are ubiquitous, creating a cheap, healthy food culture that even unadventurous foreigners would find tough to resist. While fancy fare is available, for those of us on a budget a filling meal will rarely cost more than $4-5, often a lot less.
    Initiation came by way of an extremely spicy pork and aubergine curry with steamed rice, at a small street food market near our hostel by Chong Nonsi Skytrain station (Good One Hostel & Cafe Bar, £8 per night and very comfortable). The flavours were superb, chillies, pork, aubergines, lemongrass and garlic attacking your tastebuds with a sucker punch. My immediate thought was one of slight panic: superb flavours, but unsustainable heat levels on a six-week trip. Luckily, Matt, my travel partner, and I seem to have opted for a particularly hot dish, and subsequent fare was been more manageable. 

    Dinner on day one was my chance to sample my first Pad Thai, a huge improvement on what’s available in London. Not too sweet, sour lime, and dried shrimp gave it an interesting, complex set of flavours. At around £1.50, it was a bargain! 

    Pad Thai
    Wat Pho

    While day two was reserved for tourism, it is the food that will stick in my mind. Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaeo are two fascinating, grand Buddhist temples in the city centre. Wat Phra Kaeo is larger and attracts more visitors, being Thailand’s holiest site. The Emerald Buddha is located in a beautiful bot (sanctuary), though at only 75cm it is hard to get a good view. Wat Pho was smaller, less busy, and more beautiful; entry was also far cheaper. The 45-metre reclining gold Buddha something every visitor to Bangkok should see. But the grilled chicken hearts by the river were the real highlight.

    Chicken hearts

    Dinner was a feast of Thai dishes in a small restaurant in Silom, including a superb green curry and tom kha kai, a spicy soup made with coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and lemongrass. A side order of fried pork with sesame seeds and a Korean-style barbecue sauce capped off an excellent meal.

    Green Curry

    On Saturdays in Bangkok the Chatuchak Weekend Market is the place to be. Open since the 1940s, over 8,000 stalls are densely packed offering everything under the sun, from clothes to household items, remedies to electronics, and, unfortuntely, several endangered animals as pets. Of course, there is top-quality food as well. A couple of hours wandering around the market led to the purchase of a shirt, some tiger balm, and possibly my favourite dish from Bangkok, thick sen yai noodles with brocolli, chicken and molasses, which made all the difference. The three cost less than a fiver.

    On to Chinatown for dinner. If you’ve been to London’s Chinatown, don’t expect many similarities. In Bangkok, Chinatown is busier, noisier, dirtier, bigger, and better. Food stalls line the streets, competing with restaurants for space and customers. After wandering aimlessly for around half an hour, several old Chinese men stopping to talk or give advice, or to remark on Matt’s height, we finally found what we were looking for: roast duck and barbecue pork with noodles at a street restaurant with a few plastic tables, where space to sit can be hard to find. A dessert of chicken satay with peanut sauce and a 3-0 victory for Arsenal over Chelsea capped off a wonderful day.

    Satay

    Bangkok is somewhat of a love-hate city. The hedonism can be overbearing, as can the concentration of alcohol-infused foreigners. The heat, pollution and overcrowding can feel stifling. But it’s main attraction, at least for me, is the sheer variety of food on offer, at any time of the day and for any price. Just one piece of advice: eating a scorpion is not worth the novelty photograph, don’t do it!