[cycloneslider id="seoultradeat"] One reason I hesitated over going to Korea for awhile was because as someone who can barely tolerate spicy food, I was worried I was going to starve. Or die.
Essentially, I did sort of die of spiciness, as we ate our way through Korea's most distinctive types of cuisine but I did enjoy the stuff I could comfortably eat. Traditional Korean food is generously portioned and big on including all kinds of food and colours in the one dish, with a heartiness that's intended to balance the bitter winter cold outside. Presumably by setting your tongue on fire.
The guide is thus: If the menu says it's spicy, it's really spicy. If it doesn't say it's spicy or not, it's spicy. If you ask a Korean person if the dish is spicy and they say 'No', be prepared for it to be at least mildly spicy. Side dishes are almost always spicy. Beyond the ubiquitous presence of pain with every bite, if you're the type to get a sore throat after eating spicy foods or break out, be prepared to counteract the 'heatiness' of it all with 'cooling' foods like certain teas or fruits.
Ginseng chicken or samgyetang is perhaps your best bet for a guaranteed non-spicy Korean dish and is particularly amazing on -6C windy winter nights (even though it's ostensibly for hot days). Judging by the copious amounts of foreign tourists crowded in the communal dining space, this was definitely on some travel guide book but the title is well deserved. Be careful your leg doesn't fall asleep sitting on the floor, cross-legged!
The chicken was tenderly cooked, only lightly salted, and the broth was subtly flavoured but very soothing to eat. The chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice, seeds, dates and a sizeable piece of ginseng. Note that you can't share these dishes but you'd be surprised at how capable you are of finishing the entire thing by yourself.
Beef bulgogi with mushroom was another safe, delicious non-spicy dish. Traditional Korean cuisine is huge on mixing all kinds of vegetables, rice cakes and vermicelli in so you're in for a very wholesome meal. It also comes with the traditional Korean side dish spread. Note that practically all the side dishes are spicy and range from 'slight burn' to 'long-lasting burn right down your throat'. You can find this shop if you walk down the road from the Bukchon Hanok Village Tourist Information Centre...I think I read the Korean on its sign properly right?
It's ridiculously good value for the amount of food you get if you're going with a group of friends. Definitely recommended.
And of course, you can't go to Korea without eating some samgyeopsal. We just picked a random nice-looking restaurant in Sikchon after spending ages in the area, trying to find yet another nonexistent food spot on our itinerary.
A couple of lessons learnt:
- The cloves of garlic are really strong and you should not try and eat a whole one with your samgyeopsal unless you love the flavour
- It's very easy to overcook the meat. Don't wait for it all to turn brown
- Cook the entire piece of samgyeopsal and then chop it into small pieces, not the other way around
- Do not cook multiple pieces of meat at once. You will overcook them because the meat is quite rich and you take longer than you might expect to eat
- Side dishes remain spicy, as does the bean paste. Eat with caution