I’m a big fan of the Chinese lamb restaurants dotted around Seoul – those ones with the little skewers dusted with fragrant spices and cooked at the table alongside little bowls of peanuts, pickles and of course ice-cold Tsingtao beer (so much better than Cass, and usually pretty cheap). Outside of places like Little India or Samarkand – not to mention the mighty Braai Republic – they are one of the few places to get your lamb fix, if like me you miss your Sunday roast lamb or even lamb chops on the barbecue.
So, where better to welcome in the Year of the Sheep than with a trip to one of Seoul’s more unusual variations on the lamb theme? Aladdin’s Lamb is a slightly weird fusion of Korean and Middle Eastern, where your lamb is cooked up galbi-style and then served with hummus and pita bread (and Tsingtao). It’s a strange combination, but does it work? The menu is all lamb. We started with lamb chops, which are slapped on the grill and then cut from the bone by the waitress and sliced into chopstick-sized pieces by the waitresses. They were reasonable, but somewhat expensive at around 20,000 won per 200g portion, especially when you consider that a fair proportion of each chop is bone. There are a couple of different types of chops, and you can also get lamb galbi served off the bone if you prefer. The star, I suppose, is the lamb skewers – much bigger than the basic miniature versions you get in most Chinese places, these are 4 skewers for 10,000 won and, to be fair, excellent value. The meat was fairly tender and reasonably lean, albeit with the occasional chewy bit in there as well. It could maybe have been fresher, but given that the restaurant advertises the food as halal (slightly incongruously, given that it is in the middle of Jamsil), I assume that the lamb is imported frozen from Australia or New Zealand. The grill was ringed with mushroom, tofu and onion, as well as some egg poured into the well and allowed to cook with some runoff juices from the lamb – delicious. The side dishes are where the fusion element really kicks in – there’s ssamjang there and bean sprouts, but also a little mint jelly and some chopped olives, which were good. Pita bread is 2,000 per portion, and it’s served warm, fresh and tasty – we really liked this. The hummus, though, was a major disappointment. It so happened that two of my Palestinian friends were, quite randomly, with me that night, so perhaps we were harsher critics than normal; but there was barely any salt, lemon, garlic or even tahini to be tasted. It was basically a plate of mashed-up chickpeas. We were sad about that, because we’d looked forward to it. I can make far better myself. It’s worth noting that our Korean friends on the evening really enjoyed it, and declared themselves converts to lamb. For the rest of us, the verdict was that we enjoyed our meal, but it was nothing special. The price was fair given that lamb is unusual here, and the kebabs were good.
Overall, it’s a good place for dinner if you are in the Jamsil or Sincheon area, and makes a nice change from the usual pork or beef, but I wouldn’t necessarily travel across the city for it. (And don’t head for the university district by mistake – there are two Sinchons, this is the one near the Olympic stadium in the southeast of the city.) Next time I’m in this part of town, though, I will definitely be prepared to come back.
- Category: Korean / Middle Eastern
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Lamb skewers
- Subway: Sincheon (신천역) exit 3
- Directions: Come out of Sincheon station exit 3 – to be clear, that’s the Sincheon in Jamsil, *not* the one near Hongdae – and take the first road right. The street you walk down has a whole bunch of sidestreets coming off it – you want the fifth one on the left. If you lose count, then when you pass the GS25 convenience store, the correct street should be the street after that corner. If you are still lost, try asking someone for “Aladdin yang gogi”, plug 서울특별시 송파구 잠실본동 187-15 into a Korean map app or GPS, or show them this:
- Hours: 3pm until 2am – not sure what days it is open, but the phone number is in the photo above.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to try and demystify Korean food for foreigners, and recommend great places that I had found (or been taken to) for traditional Korean dishes. In the year or so since I started, though, I have more often ended up demystifying foreign food for my Korean friends; I get frequent texts these days asking me for directions to Linus or Braai Republic, or asking the best place in Itaewon to get a taco.
While that’s great – there is nothing I love better than playing tour guide in our newly-hip part of town – I’ve had a hankering recently to get back to those initial ambitions. There’s a world of amazing Korean food out there waiting to be discovered, and it distresses me when my foreign friends and co-workers walk past a great galbijjim place to eat a mediocre pizza instead. So, when I get hold of some awesome local food, I want to share it as widely as possible – and, since I’m still learning about Korean food, I have a lot of discovering still to do.
This is a bit different though, because when I had a couple of days off this week I decided to hop on a bus to Jeonju with an equally hungry friend. Jeonju, down in the southwestern province of Jeolla-do, is widely reputed as the culinary capital of the country, the home of the famous Jeonju bibimbap but also more generally just the best place in Korea to eat. Food here is better, fresher and tastier than Seoul, and comes with more side dishes than usual, each prepared with care and attention to detail. Or so I was told. On a rainy Sunday night, I hopped on to a bus and south into the dark night I went.
Our first stop – literally straight from the bus station, bags on the shoulder – was Seoshin-dong, to visit the long-established Yetchon Makgeolli (옛촌 막걸리), which is about as traditional a drinking den as you could wish for – brimful of ajossis and young guys knocking back the dangerous, milky brew. The deal here is that you buy a set – ours was 30,000 won – which includes a HUGE kettle of makgeolli and 8 – count ’em, 8 – dishes, several of which would have made a meal in their own right. Chicken soup, kimchijeon, fish, mussels, oysters, jokbal – the hits kept coming.
At one stage in the evening, I made a daft makgeolli-fuelled comment about how, well, Korean the food was, but in that stupidity lay a nugget of truth; never mind making concessions to the foreign palate, this place’s cooking made no concessions to the Seoul palate. A large plate of kimchijjim – pork with tofu and braised kimchi – came out next. The kimchi was a sweet-and-sour masterpiece, or monstrosity, depending on your point of view. It was all too much for me, the flavour almost overwhelming.
Next morning, we were in search of a little restoration. So we headed to the mighty Veteran Kalguksu (베테랑 칼국수), which I was assured would serve me up a bowl of noodle soup for the soul, and after walking through a rabbit-warren of kitchens and dining areas, finally found a spot right at the back of the maze-like restaurant.
Dear God, this place was good. Like the famous bibimbap of this city, the soup comes “unmixed” and you swirl the ingredients together with a little bit of gochugaru (red pepper powder) to taste.
It really was nothing like other versions of kalguksu I’ve had. The broth was so good; thick and flavourful. It was like a religious experience; I’m not sure the word “soup” can really do it justice.
I was reminded of the old line about how Alexander the Great, on seeing the breadth of his domain, sat down and wept because there were no more worlds left to conquer. How can you open a can of Campbell’s chicken soup after this?
Whatever. On! Jeonju’s hanok village is a riot of traditional houses and tourist tat. Selfie sticks lurk round every corner, ready to poke your eyes out. We ate some fabulous shrimp dumplings that were more like large prawn cakes, and the famous octopus skewers which, frankly, I passed on.
This guy seemed to have captured the chest-bursting monster from Alien and deep fried it with extreme prejudice. “Extreme Fritters” indeed.
We queued up for fresh-baked hotteok at this funky little store, which allegedly makes only 200 a day. I’m not a fan of sweet things, but this was exceptionally nice.
There was precious little space in our stomachs, but there was one more dish that we had to try. Of course, it’s the famous Jeonju bibimbap. Now, when it comes to bibimbap, I can take it or leave it; I’ll never fully shake off my conviction that rice is an accompaniment to a meal, not a meal in itself (almost the polar opposite of the Korean point of view), and as for vegetables, well, don’t get me started.
This was something else, though. At Seong Mi Dang (성미당), the bibimbap comes out with a plethora of banchan. I read somewhere recently that restaurants always serve odd numbers of side dishes, for luck. I have no idea if it’s true, but let’s go with “yes”. Anyway, I counted thirteen here. Thirteen!
This place has been serving up bowls of bibimbap for 50 years, which in Korean terms is an eternity. I had the raw beef bibimbap (육회 비빔밥), and if anything can convert me into a lover of Korea’s national dish, it is this place. This is one of those rare photos, I think, which captures just how special this dish was.
So there you have it, Jeonju food. It’s just two hours from Seoul by KTX, but the bus is less than half the price and only took about two and a half hours from Express Bus Terminal in Seoul. Whichever way you get there, you should definitely go. On this evidence, Jeonju’s reputation as the epicentre of good Korean food is well-deserved.
A couple of weeks back, the subject of Korean food came up with my foreign co-workers and I mentioned budaejjigae, only to get a blank look. So I explained the story that most longer-term expats here will know: how US Army rations were repurposed by resourceful Koreans to make them more palatable; the tinned franks, beans and Spam cooked up with red pepper sauce, kimchi and noodles to make the now-famous “army base stew” acceptable to the Korean palate. If you want the full history, check out Wikipedia.
Well, after that obviously we had to go and try it, so off we went to a branch of Sinuiju Budaejjigae (신의주 부대찌개) at Samgakji, within sight of the War Memorial, where we had a splendid feast, complete with lashings of soju and beer, for a ludicrously cheap price. But I was too busy enjoying the food to take any photos, so this isn’t a restaurant review (but do go: it’s great, and there are branches all over the city, though I’m still not clear why it appears to be named after a town in North Korea. Any ideas?).
Some Koreans look down on budaejjigae, but many regard it as the ultimate comfort food; unsophisticated, but deeply satisfying. Isn’t that the definition of comfort food, anyway – something that food critics (or bloggers) might sniff at, but which everyone secretly loves? For Brits of my age it might be Angel Delight: for you, it’ll be something different, I’m sure.
Anyway, when I had some time on my hands recently, I thought it might be worth trying to recreate this dish, or at least a version of it, in my own kitchen. The beauty of budaejjigae (부대찌개) is that all the ingredients are easily found in any local mart: indeed, half of them are probably in the nearest convenience store. This was pretty much the most Korean bag of shopping I’ve come home with in months.
It’s also worth pointing out that there are as many recipes for this stuff as there are grandmothers in Korea, but I make no claims for authenticity. For example, I left out the traditional cabbage, since I’m not a big fan (though of course I didn’t leave out the kimchi: some things are sacred, even on a foreign food blog). And where most proper budaejjigae recipes call for a dashi stock, made with dried anchovies and shiitake mushrooms, I cheated and used a stock cube. Yeah, shoot me. My kitchen, my rules. No emails, please.
Budaejjigae (Korean ‘army stew’)
For the sauce:
- 6 cups of stock (home made or commercial)
- 5 or 6 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tbsp gochujang (red pepper paste)
- 1-2 tbsp gochugaru (red pepper powder), to taste
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Chinese rice wine (optional) or water
- a pinch of black pepper
For the stew:
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 cup chopped kimchi
- 1 cup cabbage, chopped (optional)
- 4 oz Spam, sliced
- 4 oz of hot dog sausages, sliced
- 1/2 lb ground beef or pork belly
- a packet or two of ramyeon
- 2 spring onions (scallions), chopped
- 1 cup sliced Korean ddok rice cakes (optional)
- 1/4 cup baked beans (optional)
- 4 oz tofu, cubed (optional)
- 1/4 cup mushrooms, sliced (optional)
- processed cheese slices, bag of grated mozzarella or other cheese to garnish
- red chilli, sliced, to garnish (optional)
1. Mix together the sauce ingredients (garlic, gochujang, gochugaru, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine/water, and pepper) in a bowl.
2. Prepare the meats and vegetables, slicing them and getting them ready to put in the pot.
3. Put the cabbage, onion and spring onion, pork, and mushrooms (if using), in the bottom of your pot. On top of that, put the kimchi and the sauce ingredients.
4. Add the Spam, sausage, rice cake, tofu, and baked beans in whatever combination and proportions you are using them.
5. Add about half the stock and simmer. Korean cooks would probably boil this at a high heat for 10 minutes before eating: I prefer to simmer it more slowly for 20 minutes or so, but your mileage will vary. If you have one of those table-top gas burners, you can cook it at the table on that, in authentic fashion.
6. 5 minutes from the end of your cooking time, add the ramyeon noodles, stir in well, and then some cheese and sliced chilli (if you want). If it gets dry, add more stock – it shouldn’t be too thick.
Once the noodles are soft and the cheese melted, the budaejjigae is ready to eat.
7. If you like, you can transfer it to a nice serving bowl or clay cooking pot at this point. Serve with a bit of boiled rice and some banchan from the market for an extra authentic touch.
A trip to a Korean fish market is one of those things that always pops up on tourist “must-do” lists, but a lot of foreign residents are a little afraid to brave the wet floors and fishy smells of Noryangjin, especially those whose Korean is poor (like mine) or non-existent. That’s a shame, because it is arguably – along with Korean BBQ, drinking soju outside the convenience store and late-night drunken noraebang – the quintessential Seoul experience, and certainly something you will not find back home.
So, first things first; you don’t have to speak Korean to go to Noryangjin, and you don’t need to know anything about fish. Yes, both of those things will definitely help, but you can get by without them if you really need to. Here are the basics.
Noryangjin Fish Market is right at Noryangjin (노량진) subway station on lines 1 and 9, about 20 minutes by subway from Itaewon. Come out of the station and cross the large footbridge across the tracks – there are a couple of signs in English for the fish market. You will find yourself basically on the roof of the market, and descend down an unpromising set of stairs to a balcony overlooking the market floor, following the fishy smell.
Noryangjin is a real, working fish market, and not for the squeamish! Pro tip: wear some closed-toe shoes or boots that can handle puddles, especially in winter when the floor of the market is covered in puddles of fishy water (and cold, too). This is not the place to road-test your new Christian Louboutins.
Now the fun begins. Take your time perusing the stalls, take some photos, check out the weird and wonderful sea creatures, many of which probably don’t even have English names (with some of them, like the “dog penis”, you’ll wish they didn’t). This is a good place to take videos on your phone. Don’t worry if you don’t know the name for anything – just point and ask.
Korean people generally come here for the freshest “hwe” (회), sliced raw fish. Even if (like me) you don’t know your gurnards from your pilchards, stall holders will help you pick out a suitable fish, saying “sashimi! sashimi!” to catch your attention. They’ll weigh the fish and quote you a price, using a calculator if you don’t know Korean numbers.
This is definitely a place to negotiate. While the sellers aren’t actively ripping you off, they’ll probably pitch the opening price a bit higher than it should be, especially if your group are all foreigners. If you feel the price is too high, keep walking – but bear in mind that some seafood in the market does command a premium price, and will still be great value compared to what you’d pay back home. King crabs and lobster, in particular, are not cheap, so don’t expect to pick them up for nothing.
That said, a lot of the seafood here is pretty cheap. You can get two or three baby octopuses (octopi?) for 10,000 won, and a hefty fillet of fresh salmon will cost no more than 20-25,000 won, depending on the size and your bargaining skills. The salmon is mostly from Norway or Canada, not Korea, but it’s beautifully fresh and makes a good entry point for those who are wary of eating raw fish, or, like me, not fond of the chewy texture of raw white 회.
There’s also a lot of shrimp, which is much cheaper – it’s worth stocking up on some of this, especially if you are a sashimi-sceptic. Most of the shrimp comes from warmer waters, like Thailand or the Philippines.
And no trip to Noryangjin is complete without some live octopus – sannakji (산낙지). Pick up a couple of these bad boys – they are easy to spot in their little buckets, and very cheap. Don’t confuse them with their older brothers, below – the octopus that’s eaten live should be small.
Generally speaking, you will find the stallholders more willing to negotiate the more you buy. Rather than dropping their prices very far, they will usually try to offer you freebies (“service”) as part of the overall price – a few extra shrimp, free baby octopus, and so on. Pay for your fish once you are satisfied with what you are getting.
After you have got your purchases, you could just go home, but where is the fun in that? Far better to eat on-site at one of the restaurants that line the market on the second floor and basement levels. The fishmonger will gut, skin and slice up your fish in front of you, and plate it up on cute (and, if you’re lucky, fish-shaped) polystyrene platters with pickled onion and some fresh raw wasabi.
Representatives of local restaurants stalk the market floor, ready to take your fish downstairs for you – don’t worry about finding them, they will find you. If you have purchased an expensive fish you might want to hang around to make sure that what you get is what you bought – the switcheroo here, while not common, is not unknown. But once you’re satisfied, they will bring your fish to the restaurant for you, as well as some fish bones and pieces for making the awesome spicy soup that finishes a Korean fish meal – maeuntang (매운탕). Say “maeuntang” to the fishmonger and he will throw in some extra fish for the soup.
Phew! Now for the fun part – the eating! The restaurant will take away anything that needs cooking to cook it. Shrimp are generally grilled in their shells, crab boiled.
If you bought live octopus, it will come out in a small dish, chopped up but still wriggling. This is the moment to set your phone camera to video mode. Take the vinegary sauce dish that came with the sannakji, and pour it on. The octopus will go crazy.
After you’ve dismembered the crab comes the best part – they’ll make fried rice for you in the shell! Ask for bokkeumbap – they’ll ask you how many portions, which obviously depends on the size of the crab and how many of you there are. A few minutes later, it’ll come back to the table. It’s really good.
You pay the restaurant separately from the fish sellers, but if you splashed out on lots of pricey seafood, don’t fret – the service charge here is very reasonable, even if you had lots to drink (and if you didn’t, why not?). Then stagger out into the fresh air and get the smell of the ocean out of your clothes.
So there you have it, Noryangjin Fish Market. The place is open 24/7 – if you want to see the traders buying and selling on the market floor then you need to get here early morning, but otherwise, the vendors and the restaurants are open every day. Weekends can get very busy, which means bustling restaurants and possibly waiting for a table. But it is seldom quiet and never closed. In a city which really does never sleep, Noryangjin is one of the pulsing heartbeats. Go there before you leave. Really.