SEOUL, South Korea — Korean food in Seoul restaurants is, surprisingly, not very different from that in Los Angeles. There isn't the sort of gap that exists between Mexican restaurants in the United States, with their limited menus, and restaurants in Mexico that explore the great variety of that nation's cuisine.
In Seoul, barbecuing at the table is as common as in Los Angeles, except that the grill will probably be fueled with live coals. In addition to the barbecued meats, menus offer the same soups, stews, dumplings, noodles, rice dishes and relishes that can be found at Siyeon (see Let's Eat Out on Page 37), Woo Lae Oak of Seoul, Hyang Mi, Dong Il Jang, Ho-Ban and other Korean restaurants in Los Angeles.
The accompaniments may be different--a bowl of raw garlic cloves to grill alongside the meat, slim green chiles to dip into soybean paste, barley water to drink and sugar-sprinkled tomato slices for dessert. But the basics are the same. At least this is the impression one gets from Seoul restaurants that accommodate English-speakers with bilingual menus.
To investigate Korean cuisine more thoroughly requires a lot of courage or a knowledgeable Korean guide, for there is a significant language barrier in Seoul. Dropping in to a middle-priced restaurant such as Hanil Hoekwan, crowded with office workers at noon, is awkward, for no English is spoken.
During lunch at this restaurant, I learned more about eating customs than about cookery. After the food was served, my two companions, both just out of college, sat quietly without speaking or eating. Growing hunger led to a shy explanation. In Korea, one eats without talking. And elders--it took a while to realize they meant me--must take the first bite.
For humble food flavored liberally with local color, there is no better place than the markets. At night, the enormous South Gate (Namdaemun) Market becomes a bedlam of shoppers milling about sidewalk displays of clothing, plastic kitchenware, sunglasses, baby outfits, shoes, purses, heaps of vegetables, seafood and startling rows of pig's heads.
Wandering into one jammed, narrow alley, I came across food stalls offering grilled chicken on sticks, vegetable pancakes, sushi-like rice rolls and other snacks. Market eating may be suspect in some countries, but seemed safe here. To ensure cleanliness, the proprietress of the stall where I ate spooned her chive pancakes and chap-chae (Korean-style chop suey) onto little plastic trays over which she had slipped a fresh plastic bag. The customers plucked paper-wrapped, new chopsticks from a pot and after eating passed around what served as napkins--a roll of toilet paper.
For dessert, I bought a package of honey-soaked, deep-fried cakes called yak-kwa from an old woman squatting beside a small pile of neatly wrapped sweets. These same cakes are available in Los Angeles, either imported from Seoul or freshly made at Korean bakeries.
"Tourist" restaurants are big, pretty places like Raipang Garden, which resembles a large-scale A-frame mountain cabin. Raipang's table tops are highly varnished cross sections of logs where customers cook their meats over pots of fiery charcoal. For hot weather, the restaurant has an outdoor terrace equipped with a waterfall.
Koreans seem to love rustic garden eating. Another example of this is Neulbom Gongwon, a sprawling array of greenery and water. Here, an open-air pavilion extends over a pond stocked with colorful fish. Part of the pavilion is floored in glass so that you eat as if on a glass-bottomed boat, with the fish cavorting under your feet.
At any level, Korean food seems to be robust, simple and farm oriented. Vegetables are magnificent and used heavily. Beautiful fresh lettuce and herb-like greens such as sukkat and minari accompany meals.
Seasonings are straightforward and pungent. Sam Gae Tang, a chicken soup served at the Seoul International Hilton, is peppered with a head or more of garlic cloves. Soy sauce, soy bean paste, chiles, red pepper paste, sesame oil, sesame seeds--and garlic--permeate the food. Green onions, vinegar and sugar are other common seasonings. Kimchi, the red-hot Korean pickle, is almost always on the table.
Rice, the staple of the diet, appears in many forms. As a meal accompaniment it may be combined with other grains and beans. It also is used in desserts such as Yaksik, a steamed rice "pudding" flavored with sesame oil and soy sauce and embellished with chestnuts, dried persimmons, jujubes (dried red dates) and pine nuts. Befitting its importance, rice is a key dish in the celebration of Chusok, the Korean harvest festival. A major national holiday known as the Korean thanksgiving, Chusok is observed this Sunday.