With cheap international flights, come the compromise of long transits; so we landed in South Korea late at night in a zombie-state, but with a delirious joy for our appending adventure. This was my first trip to South Korea and also the first time I’ve been on a girls trip with my mother and sister. We spent under two weeks in the land of kimchi, with just two days and two nights in Busan. We thought we’d ease our way into the hustle and bustle of Seoul.
So here’s what we saw and ate in Busan during our short stay:
Especially if you’re travelling during the cold season (December and January) where temperatures drop below zero, the humble kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) is pure comfort. On our first night in Busan (South Korea’s second largest city), we stumbled across a restaurant called 산만디탕 that served only kimchi jjigae. The menu offered this in three sizes: small (for 2 – 3 people) was just ₩18,000 (equivalent to about $18 AUD), medium (for 3 – 4 people) was ₩24,000 and large (for 4 – 5 people) was ₩29,000. Rice with a fried egg was an additional ₩1,000 each and of course, banchan (spinach salad, radish kimchi, pickled onion and sausage coated with fried egg) was complimentary. The sourness of the fermented kimchi in the soup was deliciously balanced with tofu and fatty slices of pork belly which was cooked at the table by the waiter. Also popular here was seasoned and grilled dried pollack (황태구이, ₩15,000).
The restaurant was a few shops down from Tower Hill Hotel:
As I normally have my coffee with soy milk (a request which was met with confused faces almost 100% of the time in Busan), I switched to espressos and Dutch coffee (cold drip seemed to be trending here) during the trip. One of the best places for coffee in Busan was at 바우노바 Baunova Coffee (중구 동광동1가 13-2 1층, Busan, South Korea).
Food Halls & Food Courts
Erase any preconceptions you may have of the sub-par food available at shopping centre food courts and food halls; the ones in South Korea will blow your mind.
The Lotte Department Store in Gwangbok (20-1, 7-ga, Jungang-dong, Jung-gu, Busan) was a short walk from our hotel and was a warm sanctuary from the winter chill. Like a scene from a movie, every display was arranged in the most meticulous manner. We feasted with our eyes and wandered around aimlessly, trying to take it all in.
The golden glaze on the large stuffed squid caught my attention so we started with that. There were a few stools dotted around the stall and one of the cooks signaled us to sit down. To our delight, the ojingeo soondae rice stuffed squid (₩9000 = approx $10.50 AUD) was served with complimentary bowls of dashi stock soup, tteokbokki spicy rice cakes and some pickled daikon! I loved the fragrance of the sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger and sesame seeds, and the squid itself was perfectly tender and not at all rubbery.
We also nourished ourselves with various types of steamed and pan-fried mandu (dumplings). Large steamers were stacked high with identically shaped buns, each of them with precisely the same number of folds and pleats. My mouth just salivates thinking about the hot, salty and pleasantly pungent sourness of the kimchi filling.
Strawberries were sold by the tray, they were arranged in neat circular patterns and were coloured in such an intense red that I had to look twice to check they weren’t fake.
With pumpkin in season, it was cooked in numerous ways – as pancakes, battered in strips and candied, stuffed and filled with fried rice and sauteed prawns, roasted with sweet potato and more! How I wished I had the stomach capacity to devour it all!
Belgian waffles were available in plain, vanilla bean, caramel, multi-grain, chocolate and almond. The chocolate waffle wasn’t just an ordinary chocolate batter, the entire waffle was dipped into chocolate, producing a thin chocolate gloss that ruptured upon first bite. The almond flavour was a plain waffle topped with almond brittle – could anything be more perfect?!
Donkkaseu, the Korean interpretation of the Japanese tonkatsu teased us in the bite-sized form by the cup full, but it was the sight of the larger skewered cutlets with perfect crunchy panko crust that made me weak in the knees.
Healthier options included these gorgeous fruit rice paper rolls, exquisitely rolled to showcase slices of kiwi fruit, pineapple, strawberry and perilla leaf.
There were also piles of yachae twigim (deep fried vegetables similar to the Japanese kakiage) and more meat on skewers.
Chapssaltteok (Korean style mochi rice cakes) and many other Korean delicacies were packaged and gift-ready.
And don’t worry about eating all those pungent foods, there were complimentary mouthwash dispensers in the bathrooms!
In case the food hall wasn’t a strong enough drawing card, the Lotte Department Store Gwangbok branch also has a sophisticated four-storey hourly water fountain display show!
Later that evening, after a stressful miscommunication with a taxi driver who took us all the way to North Busan’s Shinsegae Premium Outlets (1133 Jungwan-ro, Jangan-eup, Gijang-gun, Busan) instead of Shinsegae Centum City (1495 Wu-dong, Haeundae-gu, Busan), we shopped up a storm at Centum City’s 9 floors (it is registered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest department store in the world!) and then vowed to return the next morning to inspect the food hall 😉
Shinsegae Centum City is also known for SpaLand, it’s hot springs complex, so it was naturally the first order of the following day (but more on that later).
Many of the same foods spotted at the Lotte Department Store food hall were also on display here at Shinsegae Centum City. A few stand-out items were —
These intricately shaped Chapssaltteok rice cakes, …
Plus these colourful fruit ice pops by Brick POP, …
And mountains of seaweed crisps in as many shapes and forms as you can imagine, …
At the time of discovery, these gyeranppang were foreign looking egg cakes, but by the end of our South Korean adventure, we had eaten plenty of them!
We also grew to appreciate the abundant varieties of fish cakes, …
Cakes and pastries, …
And the numerous types of deep-fried goodness!
In the style of Japanese yakitori, freshly prepared pyramids of dakkochi (spicy chicken skewers) were on display at another stall, …
And there were rows and rows of KFC! Hooray – that’s one off the bucket list – Korean Fried Chicken in Korea!
That morning, after a rejuvenating leisurely time at SpaLand, we gleefully ate our way through Shinsegae Centum City’s food hall, finishing with a tasty mixed vegetable and seaweed bibimbap.
Spa Land Centum City (스파랜드 센텀시티)
Helmed by CNN as Korea’s most outrageous sauna, SpaLand, located at Shinsegae Centum City, consists of 22 spas fed by two different kinds of all-natural spring water pumped up from 1000m underground, 13 distinctively themed ‘Jjimjilbangs’ and saunas, and an open-air foot spa. The “sodium bicarbonate hot spring” is the “beauty bathtub,” said by the spa to “remove your dead skin cells and make your skin and hair shiny. The “sodium chloride hot spring” is “similar to seawater” and has a “heat-preservation effect” that is “good for blood circulation and helps to relieve pain from neuralgia and backache.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t nearly enough showers so we were slow to start (you bathe nude so it is mandatory to rinse yourself beforehand). However, once we had our first soak, we were able to blissfully enjoy the sheer luxury of the tranquil opulent surrounds. I wish there was something like this in Sydney!
Tip: Early bird (admission between 6:00- 9:00am) or night time special (admission after 8:00pm) is just ₩8,000 on weekdays and ₩10,000 on weekends & holidays, a saving of ₩5,000 from the original adult price. Also note that kids under 13 aren’t allowed at this spa complex.
Bakeries & Patisseries
There are eight OPS branches in Busan and although most of them are actually located within department stores, I thought they were well deserving of their own sub-category because stepping into the bakery was such a fantasy come true. Photographic evidence below.
From decorative savoury buns to a magnificent French Galette des Rois Feuillete, and everything in between, we could have spent days inside an OPS patisserie-boulangerie and we still wouldn’t have been able to try everything.
Similarly at French bakery, Dalloyau, who have 45 stores around the world, with seven of those in South Korea, the displays of macarons, cronuts and savoury breads were every carb-queen’s Heaven!
Nampo-dong: Jagalchi Fish Market, Gukje Market, BIFF Square and Gwangbokdong Food Street
The most memorable experience in Busan though, would be exploring South Korea’s largest fish market, Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장) where I came across bizarre – and edible mind you – creatures including the fluorescent sea squirt (sea pineapple) and gaebul, also known as penis fish (refer to the below photo respectively).
Along one laneway, diners selected large spiny crabs and shimmering fishes from live tanks and were then ushered into restaurants where the chefs transformed the fresh seafood into cooked delicacies. I noticed that the doors and walls of restaurants diminished as we ventured deeper into the market alleyways. Soon it became a common sight to see diners perched beneath shabby canopies to devour sizzling hot pot stews.
Raw baby crabs were fermented in chilli paste or soy sauce and bottled in jars. Salty whiffs of the fermented goodness floated in the air, sending our umami senses into a wild party.
Everywhere we looked, we noticed that the fishmongers here were predominantly female. I later learned that the women are referred to as Jagalchi Ajumma (ajumma, being the Korean term for middle-aged women or married women). The story goes, that during the Korean War, women had to step up to run the family business while their brothers, husbands or fathers were away, and the tradition has since remained.
Around another bend, vignettes of colourful plastic trays filled with fish turned into glorious scenes of golden fried whole fish and grilled fish fillets on the barbecue; the tantalizing aroma that filled the air from herbal broths and spicy stews was magnificently drool-inducing.
Further down the laneway, neatly bundled piles of dried squid, and boxes of dried shrimp, dried pollack, dried sea cucumber and dried anchovy countlessly filled the market tables.
I hypnotically watched the women at work – fresh gigantic octopus with large squirming tentacles were washed then scrubbed with full vigour. The octopus were then gently placed in turquoise, pink and blue plastic tubs, and sat like precious stones on a jewellery counter.
Whole swordfish (갈치 hairtail fish) were lined up for close scrutiny; we were careful not to bump into local housewives who were on their daily pilgrimage to buy the day’s harvest.
A little further behind the wet market, rows of squid and skate were hung out to dry in the same way it’d been done for decades – the skate were simply skewered through hooks and even spaced out on a rack; and the squid thrown over a lattice of poles. For days, it would be dried by the sun and the wind.
In terms of food-on-a-stick, this deep-fried fish cake really set the benchmark for Korean street food.
Fish paste was minced with impressive knife work, then wrapped around a crab stick and nori seaweed, and then deep fried! Piping hot, the skewers were incredibly sumptuous.
There were so many varieties of clams, seaweed, fish, and other seaweed which we didn’t know existed! We did also see turtles, swimming in a tank, ready to be slaughtered… Be careful of where you look!
We wandered around Gukje Market (남포동 국제시장), BIFF Square (BIFF 광장 (구, PIFF 광장)) and Gwangbok-dong Food Street (광복동 먹자골목) all afternoon and into the night, shopping up a bargain at Gukje Market’s wholesale prices (Gukje Market was originally formed by Korean War refugees and is Busan’s largest open-air market) and stuffing ourselves silly with the irresistible array of street food.
In another sign of food-on-a-stick ingeniousness, strawberries and grapes were pierced through bamboo skewers and coated with a candy glaze. Waffles were always perfectly trimmed and sandwiched with fresh cream.
Ssiat hoddoek (seed-stuffed pancakes) were extremely popular, as were odeng (skewered fish paste) served with seafood broth and a soy or chilli dipping sauce. Some odeng bars clearly had a cult following with hoards of diners crowding in the winter cold.
Paper bags of roasted chestnuts provided a comfortable warmth; these were too effortless to eat, with the vendor hand peeling each and every chestnut.
Patjuk, a red bean porridge, is another common winter delicacy. The red color of the beans is said to expel devils, and get rid of slight sickness.
And you know those twisted Korean potato chips (aka tornado potato)? I finally found out why they were referred to as being “Korean” despite it not being flavoured by anything remotely Korean… It originated from South Korea! This was everywhere! Koreans have really have thought of everything when it comes to food-on-a-stick!
The market stalls spill out onto the street; I remember crossing one of the main roads and peering down what seemed like an infinite street — neon signs glowed against the peachy sky and faded into Busan’s distant mountains.
Danhobak (aka kabocha or Japanese pumpkin), were freshly harvested and sold from the back of trucks.
Pop-up vendors pushed weighty carts filled with hand-picked selections of lotus root, enoki mushrooms and various greens.
When it came to banchan side dishes, the variety was overwhelming.
There are over 200 varieties of kimchi, each with its own unique combination of cool, spicy, crunchy and tangy. The kimchi alleyway was a vivid sea of red with every possible type of kimchi available in abundance.
There were even stalls dedicated to selling variations of gochujang, the legendary Korean condiment made of fermented soy beans and chilli.
A variety of flours and grains, fish cake, dried chillis and fresh tofu could also be found.
After more shopping, and more eating, we had a ‘light dinner’ of dakgalbi where we cooked our own gochujang marinated chicken on a hot plate and following the lead of locals, we ordered some instant ramen to add to our hot plate to mop up all the flavours.
And now I’ll leave you with one of the most glorious sights spotted at Gukje Market… How about this mountain of French fries and a side of spicy tteokbokki (rice cakes)?!
Stay tuned for the next South Korea post on the Street Food of Myeong-dong (Seoul).