Anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog, or who follows my Instagram, will suspect that I’m not a particularly regular consumer of salad; anyone who’s met me in person will know it for sure. So, in the interests of living past the age of sixty, I enticed one of my fit, healthy-eating friends to come with me to try out Root, in Hannam-dong, in the hope that it might persuade me to ditch the burgers and gogi at least one or two mealtimes a week.
For those of us who were raised on The Muppets, the prospect of a Swedish chef hardly bears thinking about. But Hemlagat, in the centre of the city, is an oasis of Scandinavian order and calm that is worth checking into.
Open for about a year, Hemlagat (which means “home-cooked” in Swedish) focuses on classic Northern European fare like pork, salmon and potatoes. Lots of potatoes. If you have a potato fetish, this will be your sort of Swedish porn. If you are a potater hater, well, you might want to give this place a miss.
I headed down over the weekend with some friends to review the restaurant for an upcoming issue of Groove Magazine (I’ll come back and put a link in here when it’s published). We were greeted with a complementary glass of schnapps, which gave us enough courage to attempt pronouncing the names of the dishes we were ordering. We started with a plate of appetizers mysteriously titled Avsmakningsmeny, which turned out to mean a plate of fish, prawns, eggs and some gorgeous brown bread, as well as a house salad that comes as accompaniment to all main courses.
I got the splendidly named Äpplefläsk – pork belly with caraway seeds, caramelised apples and mashed potatoes. I couldn’t help thinking that I could have made it myself at home for about quarter of the price, and the thinly-cut pork – essentially samgyeopsal meat – wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. It was a decent plate of food, but a bit meh.
My friends had ordered more wisely (ie luckily). No Swedish meal would be complete without meatballs, and these Köttbullar (I love these names) were good examples of the type. Served with more mash and a tart lingonberry jam, it was like being in IKEA without the hordes of glum couples and endless lines. I’d definitely have these again.
Sweden not being renowned for its vineyards, the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc we ordered to wash it down was all the way from Mendoza in Argentina, but there are a number of Scandinavian beers available, such as Evil Twin and Mikkeller beers, as well as my personal favourite, Sommersby cider, which would go really well with some of these dishes – try it, if you haven’t before.
There’s also a couple of dozen kinds of schnapps which you can try as shots or in a pitcher. Service was extremely friendly and personal and the ambience inside the ground-floor restaurant space is warm and classy without being pretentious.
Hemlagat definitely veers towards the more expensive side of the ledger – mains run between 28 – 35,000 won apiece, and the total bill with appetiser and wine was fairly steep. There is a brunch menu with a good range of sandwiches and breakfasts at suitably cheaper prices, though, and an executive lunch choice for under 10,000 won.
My fellow diners and I departed full but happy, but they remarked that the food was pretty heavy with all its meat, creamy sauces and, of course, all those potatoes. As a Northern European for whom a huge plate of meat and tatties is pretty much my idea of a perfect Saturday night, I didn’t quite share their point of view, but I can see how Scandinavian dishes might be better suited to the long Korean winter rather than a balmy night in August.
With that in mind, I plan to come back for more makrilltalrik, gubbröra and Skagenröra when the mercury dips a bit, so that I can store up calories for my long hibernation and wake up in 2016 ready to hit the ground running. If you’re looking for something a bit different, then – as ABBA almost said – take a chance on Hemlagat.
- Category: Scandinavian
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Skånska Revben (slow-cooked pork chops)
- Subway: Hoehyeon (회현역) exit 1.
- Directions: Come out of exit 1 and walk down the side street past Pomato, heading directly towards the Namsan tower, which you should be able to see if you’re on the right track. After a couple of minutes you’ll come to the Lotte Castle apartment towers on your left. Keep walking round to the left. Hemlagat is on the far side, facing Namsan and the cable car station, on the ground floor near the entrance to one of the towers. Search for Hemlagat on Google Maps for a better fix on exactly where it is.
- Hours: 11:30am-2:30 and 5:30-9:30pm, every day except Monday when they’re closed. For further details, check out their website.
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.
Since I was in Tokyo recently, it seems rude not to post some photos of the awesome food I ate while I was there. The sushi almost – but not quite – converted me to the cause of raw fish, but overall there was lots of great eating, and I intend to go back soon.