The only exposure to and knowledge of Korea I had were through the few restaurants in Manila and, of course, the legendary basketball star Shin Dong-pa.
As a kid, I would watch games between the Philippines and Korea: Ed Ocampo guarding Shin like a leech.
I had never explored Korea until recently. In Seoul, my friends and I had no idea where to go so we thought of just moving around and exploring—a hit-or-miss dining experience.
One thing for sure, Seoul is no shopping paradise. Almost everywhere, it sells the same variety of goods.
The first meal we had was in a family-owned restaurant very near the hotel. I had Beebimbop, a rice dish topped with shredded vegetables and thin slices of beef, bound by thick and mildly spicy sauce.
Served in a hot stone bowl, the Beebimbop rice usually develops tutong at the base, from the heat. I love its crunch and the mildly burnt flavor. Eaten like a Mongolian meal, it has all flavors mixed.
In Korean restos, meals start with tiny portions of appetizers, from sweet dilis to spinach, mini potatoes, to kimchi and tofu. I treat them like a welcome buffet so that I won’t eat too much.
Sweet, spicy, healthy
The other meal we had that I loved was a barbecue dinner. Grillers were heated for the marinated beef or pork. Diners barbecue these, then they get a sesame leaf and lettuce leaf, which they line with freshly sliced garlic, grilled meat and hot red sauce.
I enjoyed it immensely. It was spicy, sweet and, most of all, healthy. It reminded me of Vietnamese cuisine, in which many dishes are wrapped in leaves.
Another dish we had was Korean chicken, crispy fried and tossed in a choice of sweet garlic or garlic and spicy sauce. Not too oily, it was delicious— crunchy and very moist because the heat of the oil shocked the coated chicken and sealed the juices.
But the problem is that most Korean restaurants don’t serve it with rice, although it tasted far better than what I’ve had here in Manila.
The street food was interesting—lots of dried fish and squid. The dried fish is heated in a wok and packed in paper cone. One would wait for it to cool a bit so that it could be had crispy. It was spicy, sweet and also healthy.
Another meal we had was in the basement food court of the Lotte building. I zeroed in on the thick hotdog wrapped in pajeon or seafood crepe. Dipped in that now-familiar hot thick sauce, it was delicious.
I noticed that the Korean pancit or chap chae was not readily available. I realized it could more easily be found at street-food stalls.
We also ate in a place where the specialty was spicy or regular tender boiled pata. Again this one is wrapped in sesame leaves and lettuce, adding sliced fresh garlic and red thick sauce. Now how can anyone go wrong with wobbly pork fat?
Highlight of our trip was a visit to the War Museum. We learned about the war between North and South Korea. This is a must-visit for foreigners.
My conclusion is that most Korean dishes are bound by spicy, thick red sauce. There are also good and not-so-good kimchi.
I also realized there are a lot of very good Korean restaurants in Manila.
I have just been to one—Ye Dang at Metrowalk in Ortigas Center, Pasig. Cold noodles, pajeon and grilled chicken with lettuce—but no sesame leaves. Sarap pa rin.
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