Melting pot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am

If prohibition was ever introduced to Seoul, Jumbo-sandae would be its first speak-easy. Hidden in dimly lit backstreets off Insadonggil Street, this vast tented eatery, whose name means roughly 'electric pole restaurant', is a hub of alcohol-fuelled bonhomie in the capital's arts precinct.


There is no door sign to look for, no windows to peer through and if it weren't for a flickering street lamp slung over its busy entrance way, or the lively chatter of the university students, housewives, young professionals and artists who crowd in nightly, the place would be invisible.


Jumbo-sandae's menu features only two items: go-kalbi, simmered fish with salt; and makkolli, a heady working-class brew made from fermented rice and served in a plastic tub from which patrons take turns to serve each other.


'More and more young people are getting fed up with western-style fast food and are turning back to traditional street eateries for their low cost and unpretentious atmosphere,' says Ji Hwan-lim, 31, who first discovered Jumbo-sandae as a university student 10 years ago.


'Back then, it was a just a tent hung over a disused power pole where you could get a late night snack. Now, there are walls where customers can write jokes and poems and so many tables that you end up sharing your makkolli with complete strangers.'


Street eateries are enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to their cheap local fare, after-burner-strength sauces, homemade kimchi and copious tubs of makkolli.


That's good news for visitors seeking out local flavours in a city that has recently come to resemble parts of Tokyo, with brand-name boutiques, Starbucks outlets and foreign-car showrooms choking its streets. Myongdong precinct, the city's ritziest, has even been nicknamed the 'Ginza of Seoul' in recognition of the fashionable crowds of shoppers drawn to its gleaming department stores.


Those on a more frugal budget head to Tapgol Park, located in Jongno Street, a stroll from Jumbo-sandae. This meeting place, popular with elderly residents who come to chat with friends over cheap ginseng tea bought from vending machines, becomes lively when jazz musicians play from the pergola on warm evenings.


A more soothing atmosphere can be found in the city temples and palaces, which lie close to the downtown area and are easily reachable on Seoul's fast and efficient subway network.


No place could be further from Myongdong's racy streets than the architecturally inspiring Toksugung Palace, located opposite the Seoul Plaza Hotel. It may be the smallest of Seoul's palaces, yet its vast grounds and intricate stonework courtyards give visitors a taste of the serene lifestyle Korea's powerful dynasties used to enjoy.


Kyongbokkung Palace, northwest of the city centre, was a hub of royal power-brokering during the Choson dynasty (1392 to 1910), though little is left of the original 500 ornate wood buildings, which were destroyed by Japanese colonial forces in the early 1900s. Beautifully restored sections such as the Kunjongjon Hall and Hyangwonjong, or Pavilion of Far-reaching Fragrance, should not be missed.


From morning until evening, streams of domestic tourists flow through these national treasures accompanied by an army of street hawkers offering everything from Fuji film to foot massages.


Commerce is certainly a powerful driving force in Seoul these days, but when dinner time approaches, all wheeling and dealing suddenly stops and its inhabitants get down to the serious business of eating and drinking.


The growing demand for traditional home-cooked food has created an enormous range of dining possibilities for visitors to the capital. In fact, deciding which of the hundreds of food stalls, street kitchens and restaurants to patronise presents a conundrum.


At Cheong Jin Ok restaurant, located in Jongno district, there is only one dish to choose from and Kim Chang-kyun, its ruby ring-wearing owner, swears by it - though first-time diners are more likely to swear at it when they realise what they have ordered. The house speciality is coagulated cow's blood broth or haejang-guk. Above the door of the restaurant, Kim advertises this earthy fare as the 'broth to chase all hangovers'. Since the doors opened in 1937, Cheong Jin Ok has earned itself a reputation as one of Seoul's best local eateries.


Sure enough, after sampling Kim's soup, which costs 5,000 won (HK$42) and includes extra spicy kimchi with pickled radish, I begin to feel the effects of the previous night in the clubs and bars of Myongdong wearing off.


Not far from Cheong Jin Ok, one of the liveliest concentrations of street eateries, bars and cafes surrounds the Jongno 3-Ga subway station. It is here hungry city folk swarm nightly to peruse outside menus and picture boards advertising naeng myun, buckwheat noodles served in a cool broth with watermelon; tchigae, a spicy hot pot stew; and the ever-popular barbecue.


Head east for five minutes on foot to the Kwangjang market precinct and the number of eateries intensifies. Light bulbs are strung out over hundreds of movable stalls. Huge pots belch and fume, grills crackle and pans spit fire and smoke as matronly cooks flutter about with fearsome knives in hand.


Sit down at one of these stalls and your fellow diners could be a mechanic chewing thoughtfully on a pig's trotter, or a group of immaculately dressed office ladies tucking into fish head stew. The aromas of the dishes excite and, at the same time, confuse the senses.


Still more curious odours fill the night air along the north side of Jongno Street, which heads back towards Seoul's city centre. It takes less than a minute to catch the heady aroma of ppeondaegi, or boiled silkworm larvae, wafting from dozens of street carts.


Outside Danseongsa Theatre, you might spy elderly women spooning these steaming critters into paper cups and selling them to passers-by for 1,000 won. The smell - like sweet, musty cardboard - is overpowering. You should spear them with the tooth pick provided and swallow as quickly as possible.


It is back around Tapgol Park that you can find an antidote for the powerful silkworm aftertaste. A handful of stores, or hanyak, specialising in traditional medicine, cluster in the alleys here and are instantly recognisable by the bell jars of snake wine in their windows.


Dried reptiles, exotic-smelling herbs, bowls of snake meat soup - baem tang - and snake wine - baem sul - are readily prescribed from their tiny alcoves. The well-meaning staff will recommend viper juice for tuberculosis or a glass of albino snake wine should you wish to live longer. A milky coloured cocktail of yellow python and Korean flower wine should, if nothing else, cure one's fear of the unknown.


Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Seoul.