I am just back from my first trip to Korea. It was everything I expected and more.
My only experience with Korea before this was with Korean Airlines, which actually made me want to visit the country. As well I had been to Incheon Airport many times and loved how efficient and clean it was. That’s exactly what Seoul was like. It’s a marvel of modern brilliance.
I stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Gangnam. This property is very, very prestigious and I liked it a lot. It’s not modern but it’s dripping in old-style Asia ethos. It reminded me of Hong Kong way back 20 years ago. When my bags were delivered to my room the Oorter wouldn’t even take a tip, yes that’s a Korean cultural touchstone, but this gesture reminded me of those days of youre in Hong Kong when it was all about service.
I had a junior suite that by Korean standards was large. I also enjoyed the Club Lounge which had a nice variety of food and drinks.
Now I don’t mean to incite any ill-feelings here since I know Japanese/Korean relations can be frosty but I have to say that Korean hospitality felt very similar to Japanese hospitality. And for me Seoul was exactly what I was expecting. It seemed like a healthy fusion of Hong Kong and Tokyo, but leaning much more towards Tokyo. Now this doesn’t mean that Seoul doesn’t have an identity all to its own, its just that as we travel its natural to make comparisons to other places that we’ve been. For me Seoul’s uniqueness came from its blending of traditional ways with a passion for ultra-modern design and lifestyle ideals.
I was fortunate to have a chaperone who took me around. The city is not as easy to master as Hong Kong or Bangkok. It’s a large city with lots of traffic but the traffic moves and isn’t constantly at a standstill like it is in Bangkok and other SE Asian cities.
Korea is not cheap. Shopping was more expensive than I expected and even though there are many markets, Seoul is all about the big brand retail outlets from Aquascutum to ZARA to everything in between.
People in Korea are very polite. It’s all about service and hospitality and Seoul is hands down one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen. I felt very safe and walking around at night it was wonderful to see all the restaurants in Gangnam. This is the young trendy area that is vibrant and full of life where the back streets of Gangnam are full of restaurants and bars and beautiful, very fashionable people. Let’s face it, there are a lot of well dressed, well put together men and women in Korea and they all seem to congregate in Gangnam.
My biggest surprise of the food. I think I was expecting more Asian cuisine with more deep fried foods but what I found was clean, healthy, incredible flavours. Korean food is very soup based. But I also found lots of raw food including my favourite, steak Tartar. This is my favorite dish and ate it every day. Most restaurants served it as raw meat mixed with Asian pear, sesame oil , soy and sugar with Korean chili sauce. Yum, this has to be one of the best things I have ever eaten.
Being a foodie one of my must-see attractions is always a food market. I found that the one I visited seem to have more of a Chinese influence. I tried poached silkworms. Not that I would recommend it though because for my tastes I didn’t’ think that the flavour was any good. But it was one of those moments where I just thought, “what the heck got to give it a go!” However there was an amazing range of seafood, fish and vegetables on display.
I was also able to visit the test kitchen of Pulmuone who are one of the biggest food manufacturers in Korea. They have ranges of sauces, noodles and tofu. Their business ethics were amazing. It was all about the customer having knowledge of what’s in their food, the quality of the ingredients and making sure that their products fit into a healthy lifestyle. In fact, Korean brands on the whole are incredibly high in quality. From cookware to face creams to food every product I tried was of a true world-class standard. This is rare but much appreciated.
On my last day it dawned on me that Korea really was the heart and Seoul of Asia. pardon the pun. So as I was departing Incheon I made a promise to myself, I pledged to return soon, especially if I can fly Korean Air and have the traditional dish of the country bibmibap. It really is worth the trip just for this.
Daniel Green, the Model Cook is a Celebrity Chef known for his healthy approach to food and living well. With TV, books, magazines and live appearances, Daniel spends his time helping fans to cook better, feel better and live better. He’s also an avid traveler and a self-confessed Foodie.