(CNN) — “Best of” lists are controversial, unscientific, inherently subjective and are guaranteed to result in bellyaching. But they are good for precisely this reason: they get us talking about food.
In order to compile our own list, we spoke with a number of certified “foodies” — people who obsess about food about as much as we do. One of those people is Jun Kyung-woo, the co-author of best-selling book “Dining in Seoul.”
“The first question is: how do you define Korean food?” says Jun. “Is it the ingredients? Is it Korean because it exists in Korea? Is it what Korean people actually eat?”
Indeed, the constantly shifting topography of Korean cuisine now includes dishes like pizza topped with fried shrimp and sweet potatoes and Chinese food like jjajjangmyun (black bean noodles). Respectively, they are branded “Italian” and “Chinese” food, but are so heavily Koreanized that they would be unfamiliar to native inhabitants of those countries.
There is a long, dynamic history that includes a certain ingredients and flavors like soy, garlic, red pepper and techniques like salting, pickling, and braising. So while an outlandish pizza might be an entirely Korean product, for this list, we are looking at food that has a long genealogy on the Korean Peninsula.
That being said, our conception of Korean food isn’t narrow. We value the bowl of naengmyun from the restaurant that has operated for over three decades as much as the artfully constructed plates that filter Korean flavors through molecular gastronomy.
There is an astounding breadth to Korean cuisine. We’d like to think that this is a start:
1. Song Jook Heon (송죽헌)
True hanjeongsik, or traditional Korean food, is all about space — literal, physical space.
“With real hanjeongsik, you would wait in an empty room,” says Gang Heon, a music and food critic. “Then they would bring in a table filled with 30 different dishes. Where there was nothing, suddenly, there would be an abundance.”
It is difficult to find restaurants that still operate this way.
“As a result of Western influence, there has been a shift,” says Gang.
In a concession to Westernization, most hanjeongsik restaurants in Seoul offer food in time-based courses rather than the cornucopia of plates overflowing the table. According to Gang, if you are going to stay in Seoul, you would do well by going to Song Jook Heon, the Seoul location of a restaurant across the street from the secret garden of Changdeokgung Palace.
The original location is in Gwangju in Jeollanam-do, and offers a delicious spread of dishes that include grilled abalone with pan-fried ginkgo berries, duck patties with a hint of ginger, and codfish dumplings with an egg white foam.
They will also grant particular requests, so they will serve you samgyetang or spicy chicken stew if you call ahead.
Reservations are absolutely necessary.
The meal ends, in true Jeollado style, with rice and a variety of jeotgal and jangajji or salted fish eggs and anchovies. The flavors are pungent, unapologetic and not for first-timers.
“It’s hardcore,” says Gang.
37-2, Unni-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul; +82 2 763 4234
2. Yong Su San (용수산)
If the Jeolla-do style of royal cuisine is, as Gang says, the “boss” of Korean food, then the food from Gaesung, the former capital during the Koryo dynasty, is its main rival. Where Jeolla food is boldly, almost aggressively, flavored, the food of Gaesong is clean and more subtle.
Gaesong style lends itself more easily to Western palates. The restaurant Yong Su San has opened a number of branches over the past three decades, including one in Los Angeles.
Gaesong food also has the advantage of being visually stunning, whether it is the gujeolpan — crepes with finely julienned vegetables and proteins separated according to color — or sinseollo, a soup with a bounty of meats, seafood and vegetables served in a heated silver brazier.
Yong Su San has multiple locations.
Main branch, 118-3 Samcheong-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul; +82 2 771 5553
3. Eulji Myun Oak (을지면옥)
“Naengmyeon is a distinctly Korean dish,” says Gang. “It’s not just noodles, it’s soul food.”
Gang’s favorite naengmyeon restaurant is a somewhat rundown restaurant that has operated for over 30 years called Eul Ji Myun Ok.
“They have maintained a lot of that traditional flavor,” he says.
The flavor is not robust and meaty in the direction that many naengmyeon restaurants have taken as of late, but rather clean and refreshing.
Eul Ji Myun Ok has a sister restaurant (actually run by the sister of the original founder) called Pil Dong Myun Ok (필동면옥) around Chungmuro. Which one is better? According to Gang, Eul Ji is better.
“It’s a little down-home.”
177-1 Yipjung-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 입정동177-1); +82 2 2266 7052
4. Tosokchon Samgyetang (토속촌)
Tosokchon Samgyetang is known for its samgyetang.
Courtesy Tosokchon Samgyetang
Tosokchon Samgyetang is famous for being famous. It used to be a favorite of the late president, Noh Muh-hyun. It’s a mainstay in guidebooks to Seoul, as evidenced by its popularity among tourists, and yet, the hype is well-deserved.
The restaurant is best known for one thing: samgyetang. The young, spring chicken — stuffed with chestnuts, garlic, dried jujubes, and most importantly, ginseng — is slow-cooked for hours on end. The food is meant to re-energize a flagging spirit, and traditionally, is meant to be eaten on one of the three dog days of summer, the sambok.
But once you’ve tasted the nutty, sweet, and soothing broth, you’re not going to want to wait until next summer to taste it again.
85-1 Chaebu-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 체부동85-1); +82 2 737 7444
5. Si Wha Dam (시화담)
“We run this restaurant like a museum,” says Oh Chung, owner of Si Wha Dam. “There are things here that you can only see at a museum.”
On the entrance floor, there are display cases filled with ancient relics and antiques, including traditional burial accessories from the second and third centuries — clay ducks and roosters, spiritual intermediaries between heaven and earth.
These artistic sensibilities take center stage on plates of food that seem too gorgeous to be consumed.
The food itself stands meekly against such presentation — two fish balls made of flounder sit on a cascade of pebbles next to the flourish of a budding branch of an apricot tree.
“We don’t want one thing to dominate,” says Oh. “But rather harmonize with the rest of the dish.”
Indeed, the meal is a parade of handcrafted plates (there are different prix fixe menus according to price), each decorated with flowers that had been picked that day. The food though, fades from memory like a fuzzy dream that has just left your grasp.
5-5 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul; +82 2 798 3311
6. Koraebul (고래불)
If you still don’t have a taste for raw seafood, this is the place to acquire it. The seafood restaurant Koraebul, literally meaning “whale fire,” takes its name from a seaside town in the northern part of Gyeongsang province where they get their seafood.
The restaurant might be located around Yeoksam-dong in Gangnam, but receives its seafood fresh from fishermen on the east coast of the peninsula every morning.
Since the ingredients are so fresh, Koraebul often serves raw preparations of its seafood, whale, flatfish, and abalone to come chilled and sliced alongside sauces like the spicy and vinegary chojang or with some doenjang, fermented bean paste. The rest of the menu includes prix fixe courses that display the abundance of the East Sea with rock octopus, clams, and turbot.
828-53, Yeoksam1-dong, Seoul; +82 2 556 3677
7. Jung Sik Dang (정식당)
In 2009, chef Yim Jung Sik opened a restaurant in Apgujeong called Jung Sik Dang, a play off of his own name and the word for a prix fixe menu. While studying at the Culinary Institute of America, Yim formed a strong bond with some of his classmates with whom he would later open the restaurant.
Jung Sik Dang is one of the first restaurants in Korea to bring molecular gastronomic techniques to Korean cuisine. Riding on that success in Seoul, they have opened a second location in downtown Manhattan in Tribeca.
The menu changes regularly according to the chef’s whims as well as the seasons. One of their signature dishes though, is a sea urchin bibimbap. They take a spin on a classic dish by using fresh raw sea urchin as the protein and a seaweed puree in place of the traditional spicy red pepper paste, gochujang which creates a salty, umami flavor profile. The dish is finished with a sprinkling of toasted millet that lends the rice a smoky crunch.
11 Seolleung-ro 158-gil, Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu (서울특별시); +82 2 517 4654
8. Jinju Jip (진주집)
There is little pretension when it comes to dining after a long hard night of drinking. After all, when you are in need of a hangover cure, nothing will quell an upset stomach quite like a hearty bowl of beef soup.
Jinju Jip, located in a nondescript alley near Namdaemun, is open 24 hours for precisely that reason. Their specialty is an oxtail soup where the meat has been braised for hours and is so tender that it quivers at the touch of a spoon.
“This soup can be universally appreciated,” says Jun. “It’s not expensive and you can eat it comfortably.”
34-31 Namchang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul; +82 2 318 7072
9. Byeokje Galbi (벽재갈비)
Byeokje Galbi strive to discover, rear and serve hanwoo of the very finest quality.
Courtesy Byeokje Galbi
No list would be complete without a good old fashioned Korean barbecue restaurant. When it comes to meat on a grill, nothing is more important than the quality of the meat, and no one is more obsessive about that than the owners of Byeokjae Galbi.
The meat here comes from organically fed Korean cows, also known as hanwoo, which is much costlier than most of the imported beef.
“Korean beef is more similar to Japanese kobe,” says Jun. “People in Seoul like the meat to melt in your mouth.”
Bangi-dong branch, 1-4, Yangjae-daero 71-gil, Songpa-gu, Seoul; +82 2 415 5522
Congdu was previously based in the Seoul National History Museum, but the eatery has since relocated to the grand former home of the last emperor of Joseon’s grandmother.
The fine-dining establishment serves some of the best Korean food in Seoul, with owner Vivian Han travelling around Korea to seek out top suppliers and ingredients.
“My concept was to take authentic Korean tastes and use high quality local ingredients and creatively prepare them to titillate modern tastes and sensibilities,” she says.
Congdu is most famed for it’s ganjang gejang (soy sauce crab), which is made with Korean blue crab and served with white rice and dried seaweed.
Congdu, 116-1 Deoksu Palace-gil Junggu; +82 2 722 7002
Alex Jung is a food and travel writer. His love for food is only limited by the capacity of his stomach.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.
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