Eat Your Way Around Korea

1. Seolleongtang, Seoul

Seoul has been integrating regional dishes into its local menu for as long as it's been a center of culture and commerce in Korea. Case in point: Seoul may not have created bibimbap, but it's crawling with bibimbap restaurants.

One irrefutably local food is seolleongtang, a murky, off-white ox bone soup that's hearty and filling for all of its thin, almost-watery consistency. Seolleongtang began as part of a spring ritual in the Joseon Dynasty to honor farming. Part of the ceremony included slaughtering a cow as a sacrifice to Dangun (founder of Korea's first kingdom) and making it into a soup.

Upon observing the ceremony, King Seongjong ordered that the cow be cooked more efficiently, in order to feed the most people with the least amount of food. Thus seolleongtang was created to produce maximum flavor with the minimum of meat.

This satisfying soup might explain how Koreans have put up with Seoul's harsh winters in recent years -- when eaten with rice, the lack of actual meat in the soup isn't a problem.

With seolleongtang, it's all about the broth. The deep, full flavor comes from the ox bone, which is cooked in the soup for 10-odd hours. The pale, milky color comes from the ox bone marrow.

2. Uijeongbu budaejjigae, Gyeonggi Province
Buddaejjigae, literally "army base stew," has its roots in the Korean War, when hungry chefs had to be creative with their restricted resources.

They'd cook stews from U.S. Army base leftovers like hot dog sausages, Spam and American cheese, adding Korean ingredients such as dropwort, ddeok, ramyeon noodles, kimchi and condiments like gochujang to create a spicy fusion sensation.

Buddaejjigae is sometimes called "Johnson tang," tang being the Korean word for stew. According to the book "About Korea's Representative Foods," it's named for U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who's said to have praised the taste during a visit to Korea. Buddaejjigade spread especially quickly in Uijeongbu, which had a high concentration of U.S. Army bases.

Today there's a "buddaejjigae" street (Gyeonggi-do Uijeongbu-si Uijeongbu1-dong) in Uijeongbu with a high concentration of buddaejjigae restaurants.

3. Pocheon makgeolli, Gyeonggi Province
Pocheon's claim to fame is makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, slightly tart, mostly sweet and easily identified by its creamy, off-white color.

Good makgeolli can be found around the country. Every province has its own fermenting process.

Pocheon's makgeolli has Pocheon's equally famous mineral-rich water, which is what gives the makgeolli its distinctive flavor.

According to "Makgeolli Tour," by Jeong Eun-suk, Pocheon's water is said to have affected the taste of kimchi in the villages as well.

4. Chuncheon dakgalbi and makguksu, Gangwon Province

Which gochujang-covered chunk is chicken? And which is cabbage?
Chuncheon, Gangwon-do is known for two things: dakgalbi and makguksu.

Dakgalbi began as a dish of grilled chicken morsels in an area where chicken was cheap.

Today, dakgalbi is seasoned and deboned chicken stir-fried with sliced tteok, sweet potato, perilla leaves and cabbage.

Makguksu is buckwheat noodles in a chilled kimchi stock, often with added flavors in the form of sugar, mustard, sesame oil or vinegar. The noodles are topped with whatever vegetables strike the chef's fancy.

These perfectly harmonized dishes form the yin and yang of a thrifty and filling meal.

We say thrifty because noodles were traditionally the food of the poor, and because dakgalbi was historically the favorite of the poor -- at a mere ₩100 (10 cents) per serving in the 1970s, it was popular with soldiers and students, thus gaining the nickname "commoner's galbi" or "university student's galbi."

Dakgalbi is a recent creation, created in the 1960s. It's spicy, sweet and meaty, served hot on the same table it's cooked on.

Makguksu, on the other hand, has been around since the Koryeo Dynasty. It's spicy, savory and wheaty, served chilled.

The well-balanced taste of these two dishes together is for the diner to decide -- the 20-odd dakgalbi restaurants in Chuncheon's "Dakgalbi Alley" continue to serve them together.

5. Byeongcheon sundae, South Chungcheong Province
Sundae, at its most basic, is a type of blood pudding: pig or cow intestines stuffed with glass noodles, ground meat and vegetables. And congealed blood.

All steamed into coils of humble but delicious meaty goodness, ready to be sliced and served -- usually with other pork parts, like lung and heart, on the side.

Supposedly, Ghengis Khan's army embraced sundae as a convenient and nutritious meal on the go.

In Korea, the dish has produced regional variations -- sundae stuffed into squid, sundae made exclusively with large intestine, sundae made with small intestine, sundae of multiple shades of cooked pork blood and finally Byeongcheon sundae, known for its "especially black color," finely ground meat and soft, juicy consistency.

6. Jeonju bibimbap, North Jeolla Province
Bibimbap only looks pretty when it's served. The first thrust of the spoon and it's a big wonderful mess.
As one of Korea's most well-known foods, this lunchtime favorite has modern fusion and inter-regional reincarnations.

You can get as fancy as you want -- vegetarian, with seafood -- with all these takes, but Jeonju bibimbap is by far the most famous.

Perhaps it has something to do with Jeonju's widely known reputation as both a neighborhood of nobles (yangban) and a leader of taste.

To the Korean noblemen, who were all about ceremony, bibimbap had to look good on the table, its over 50 multi-colored ingredients packed neatly in a bowl.

The irony, of course, is that bibimbap tastes good only after the carefully arranged ingredients are all mashed together.

Korea's star chef Edward Kwon travels to Jeonju to learn to make the ultimate bibimbap in the latest episode of CNN's Culinary Journeys.

Credit: CNN Travel

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