Seoul - The first thing that makes an impression in Seoul is that this truly is a world city.
The South Korean capital is buzzy, its sights firmly set on today’s consumer society and, other than the language barrier for those of us who don’t speak Korean, there’s not much the city cannot provide.
I was on a cultural quest – food and fashion, art and architecture, music, museums and animé – and found it there in abundance. It feels like a city that never sleeps, the choices in any field are varied and, night or day, the chase is on.
As a guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service, I was based in the centre of the city and spent a week tasting the richness of the Korean food. From street fare to different traditional dishes made old style or adapted for a contemporary society, it’s all there in abundance and if you think kimchi is the beginning and end of Korean food, think again.
Food: Food is served in a single setting, which includes rice (bap) and side dishes (banchan), which can consist of rice, soup, soy sauce, kimchi, grilled fish and vegetables – this is the simplest form or the setting can be much more extravagant, with different fish and meat dishes, adding to the richness and depth.
In a sense you determine every single bite with whatever combination you decide to make, using the generosity displayed on the table in front of you. But you quickly learn that health is uppermost in the minds of Koreans and while it may look like a feast, their way of eating is healthy and extremely nutritious.
Koreans have also embraced the Western trends and one can easily have three coffees – all of them quality.
Tradition plays an important role in the Korean culture and because of that regional and seasonal cuisine comes into play, with many strange plants, for example, all from different regions and all part of the heritage and the cuisine.
A simple noodle restaurant will have you dipping into different hot and cold dishes, all of which showcase noodles, but each in a different way. They range from spicy mixed noodles served cold – a personal favourite on the trip – to a hot dish, “banquet noodles”, served in a clear beef broth, and this gives just a hint of the expanse of the noodle game.
From a spicy soft tofu stew, made with salted shrimp and soft tofu and served fresh off the stove, a spicy sausage stew (first created with spam during the Korean War and the American presence) to the hotpot (cooking at the table) of dumplings, which can be meat or kimchi dominated, depending on your preference, the options seem to run for ever.
And you won’t be disappointed with their street food, which is no less complicated and equally nutritious, overwhelming you with seafood, fish or meat kebabs, corn with different toppings, fruit juices – from pomegranate to watermelon – and the ubiquitous rice cakes with red chilli paste, a standard at these markets and the most popular Korean takeaway.
Once you get the chewy texture, it’s hard to let go. Add a Korean-style pizza (which reminds one a little of quiche), and you’re ready to tuck in for a couple of hours. Or their sushi-styled takeaway gim bap (dried seaweed rolls like the more familiar sushi), which is made in almost a hot-dog shape, sliced and placed in an oblong box for hunger pangs late at night.
Trying to navigate this food culture on your own can be daunting and would be best done with the help of a Korean foodie. Look for food trips or even a day-long initiation that can be booked before you go. You won’t be sorry. Once you understand Koreans’ cuisine culture, it’s a magnificent entry into the society.
Fashion: Tradition looms large, but with artists in every field, there’s a quest to put a contemporary stamp on anything they do – from music to fashion to food.
Top designer Tchai Kim Young Jin has embraced their traditional dress called the hanbok, introducing it into her famous wedding dresses and creating a ready-to-wear line that is quite extraordinary. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that a fashionista like actress Tilda Swinton has discovered her couture. Made from the best fabrics in colours that swing from muted to clashingly colourful, the style is chic and classy and moves easily from the traditional to the uber trendy. See http://blog.naver.com/tchaikim.
It’s good to experience a culture that is rooted in the old but which has moved far beyond into the new millennium.
Architecture: Similarly with Korea’s architecture, which is initially hard to find.
There are many high-rises, but not much that strikes one as being architecturally adventurous. Apparently at the start of this still-fledgling democracy, building was done for practical rather than aesthetic reasons, and this is slowly changing.
One of the most exciting complexes in Seoul is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, popularly called DDP.
A major city landmark designed by one of the world’s hottest architect, Zaha Hadid (the Serpentine Sackler Gallery), and Korean firm Samoo, the plaza serves as a cultural centre that spotlights design. It features design extravaganzas, from Chanel to Dior, and features solo exhibitions by Korea’s top artists, with their work shown in retrospectives, while also checking the new kids on the block.
Even the outside markets, which feature handmade goods, are worth checking out for their forward-thinking designs and quirkiness.
l Another landmark is the EWHA Campus Complex which is part of the EWHA Womans University, which is enthralling because of its unusual design. It was Korea’s first women’s educational centre, more than 125 years ago, and is the largest in the world. Visitors can wallow in the cool design on many different levels.
Art: British artist Tracey Emin, who will be exhibiting in Seoul next month, describes Seoul as one of the most serious contemporary art scenes in the world today.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art has three galleries in different parts of Seoul, each serving different sections of modern art, but together covering the spectrum. The trio are the National Museum, which is in Gwacheon, on the outskirts of the city, and which has a spectacular sculpture garden featuring Korean art; a sculpture garden in old palace grounds in the city centre and a modern historical building featuring solo shows of Korean artists; and the newest, also in the city centre, which felt the most contemporary because of the building. All three concentrate to some degree on Korean art, but also have a strong emphasis on international art. The third one is specifically forward-thinking in the way it spotlights international contemporary art.
The museums are an extraordinary window into the Korean artists of this and the past century. Once you have visited all three, none of them too overwhelming, you will have a fair idea of the quality of Korean art.
They have made me very enthusiastic about the Asian art scene, which isn’t given much attention in the rest of the world. With Koreans reaching out artistically across the continents, this will hopefully change.
The sculpture garden, where only Korean artists are part of a permanent display, is a landmark and quite unusual in a world where sculpture gardens aren’t plentiful. But this is a city that pays attention to art, as the abundance of public and street art testifies.
If anything, Koreans are a people who want their presence to be felt in the world. They are aware that their main obstacle is perhaps language because it is much less accessible when a country – not part of the West – doesn’t have a language that others are at least able to read.
But we live in new times and an age when Korea as a brand is becoming much more visible. Its food, especially in the US where many of these global trends start, is making huge waves, with contemporary Korean food high on the Top 10 lists. And the rest will follow as it should.
Spend time in Seoul if given the chance. It’s a blast, with a culture celebrating brilliantly bold people who want to make their mark internationally and with artistic flair.
Diane de Beer, Saturday Star