Formerly the capital of Korea until the country split in 1945, Seoul is South Korea’s irrepressible metropolis, juxtaposing old temples with modern architecture and offering plenty of ways, if you so desire, to escape its shiny chaos. Indeed, a bevy of coastal national parks dotted with granite crags are just a train ride away.
Korea is also home to some of the most honest people in the world. During my first trip there, my friend Jess left her backpack—containing myriad expensive items—on a subway car. Just when we had lost hope, after spending days on the subway trying to find it, the phone rang. The transit authority had located her bag. Everything was intact.
On my second trip to Korea (I was enamored enough to return less than a year later), four middle-aged Koreans insisted that Jenelle, Katie and I take a seat at their table at a restaurant in Bukhansan National Park. They welcomed us with bottles of makkoli (a fermented alcoholic rice drink), Korean pancakes, and tofu, while offering up their thanks for the American participation in the Korean War. How do you accept thanks for something you had absolutely nothing to do with? We smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”
“That’s what people do here,” my friend Katie (the reason I visited Korea in the first place), later explained. Katie has been teaching English in Korea for the past year and she said her students are always sharing their snacks with “Teacher.”
“Don’t eat food on the subway unless you intend to share it with everyone around you,” Katie added, after I told her about a man who shared his pastry with me on a congested subway car.
This collectivist attitude, that we should look out for the greater good of society instead of our individual desires is paramount in many Eastern cultures. And while I have done a fair amount of traveling in Asian countries, my travels in Korea marked the first time where I was a lucky recipient of this philosophy.
OK, now rewind to my first visit to Korea, when Jess, Katie and I—best friends reunited after more than six months—spent an evening at an outdoor food market. Wide-eyed and overzealous, we bounced from one food stall to the next, sampling an array of Korean dishes and guzzling Soju, another fermented alcoholic rice beverage that administers an especially interesting buzz. Apparently its got a rich history, too. According to The Guardian:
“This is a drink embedded in Korean culture since the 14th century, when Mongol invaders taught the locals how to distill, with fermented rice as the traditional starter. Today, the final spirit ranges in strength from 45% ABV to more common varieties that hit your glass at around 25% ABV.”
We must have been sipping the stronger variety.
Oh and then there’s the food, the glorious food. Feint of stomach beware: Korean food is very spicy thanks to copious amounts of tangy Korean curry. If you can handle the spice, almost all the food in Korea is worth sampling, from Korean barbecue: a spread of exotic vegetables, kimchee, sticky purple rice, tangy bean paste and beef or chicken that you cook in the center of your table to vibrant rice bowls stacked with layers of curry soaked vegetables to brothy, steamy soups (also spicy as hell), to dak galbi—stir-fried chicken, cabbage, sweet potato, scallions, onion and perilla leaves cooked in a chili pepper sauce that lingers on your tongue.
So you see, the story of this colorful nighttime food market is best told through pictures.