After a recent trip eating my way around South Korea, I wanted to share a little about my insights into the local food culture and the lessons it reinforced from food travel.
Food travel is all about travelling specifically for the food, not the sights. It is something that is becoming especially popular and is no surprise when you consider how many food tour companies are popping up all over the world (just like Delectable Tours.) There is also a proliferation of food bloggers and culinary experiences to indulge our tastes, and people are lapping it up. This South Korean trip for us was all about the food travel with a touch of sightseeing thrown in.
South Korea’s food culture has evolved through its natural environment and cultural trends with an influence from its neighbouring countries, Japan and China. Overall, the Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables, and meats, as well as seafood in certain parts. The traditional meals are noted for the number of side dishes that accompany the main dish and certainly contribute to the flavour profile. Like anywhere in the world, dishes vary by province and some provincial dishes have grown into popular national dishes.
You can learn a lot about a country and even a city or town by its traditional cuisine and overall food culture. When you continue to come across recurring flavours it becomes evident of the key ingredients in any cuisine. Whether these ingredients are extremely fresh, dried or otherwise also tells you whether or not it may be seasonal or grown/produced locally. The type of ingredients, whether, meat, seafood, dairy, vegetable, or otherwise also gives another good insight into the food culture and local diet.
Another great insight is whether there are a lot of shared or individually plated dishes. It gives an indication into the importance of a mealtime as a chance to socialise and enjoy each other’s company over a meal, or if it is more or a necessity in our daily lives.
In South Korea, we found that many menus leant towards share dishes, which is no surprise when you think of the infamous Korean BBQ. Locals shared meals amongst family and friends and made the most of the chance to enjoy a few different dishes.
Like the saying when in Rome…we ate as much of the local cuisine as we could. After all, I really wanted to not only experience the local food culture but also as much of the local produce as possible. With everything from hot pot dishes, noodle soups, Korean BBQ, fresh local seafood, black pork, pork cutlets and kimchi, we tried it.
Out of all of these delicious dishes, it was a spicy beef noodle soup that was a clear winner for me. The blend of spicy, sour, salty and a touch of sweetness came together to create a deliciously warming meal that also helped to battle the cold.
However, with the good, comes the bad, and I must admit that I didn’t enjoy all aspects of the Korean cuisine. One thing that really stood out to me was that everything, especially anything packaged or slightly processed, was quite sweet. I can definitely see why sweet bread shops do well there.
We also tried a variety of cuisines and occasionally opted for whatever the highest rated restaurants were in the area, no matter the cuisine. This, with anything where you rely on a handful of ratings and basic reviews, produced mixed results. It reinforced a few key beliefs I have when it comes to relying on restaurant reviews.
Have you ever eaten somewhere based on the recommendation of someone who had a great dining experience, to end up not really enjoying the place or your meal? (Maybe you look to Yelp or Zomato, or even have been given a recommendation by someone who it turns out was getting a commission for sending customers to the restaurant, and if so, I know you know what I’m talking about!)
There can be many reasons for this, but generally, it comes down to your own tastes. And what you order…But even if you were to know what to order where it really only takes you halfway there to having a great dining experience because the venue and specific dishes matter too.
Who the recommendation is from also impacts on how useful the review is. Are the reviews by locals or other visitors that have certain expectations or preconceived ideas of specific flavours, quality, and value? It really is hard to know, but sometimes you just have to try things for yourself or employ the services of a local food guide, which I highly recommend.
On the plus side, it introduced us to a few fusion cuisines. I think one of the most interesting aspects of eating abroad is trying fusion cuisines and even a country’s take on another cuisine altogether. After all, different base ingredients, locally grown produce and the chef’s exposure to the authentic cuisine will vary greatly.
One fusion cuisine I did particularly enjoy in South Korea was what they like to call Ko-Mex – Korean-Mexican. It was full of fresh flavours, not too unlike Mexican we had tried elsewhere, but with some interesting additions that worked really well like kimchi. I would say that it was more like the Californian style of Mexican, and dishes such as fajita bowls and burritos were extra tasty with all the fresh herbs that were available in the region.
To sum up my take on the cuisine, it was a whole lot of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty, which was mostly pretty enjoyable. This food travel experience gave me insight into the importance of spending time with friends and family, key local ingredients, and reinforced my beliefs that you can’t always rely on reviews when it comes to finding somewhere to eat.