Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Seoul food

A 40-hour stay in South Korea's capital is long enough to see a few sights and taste plenty of savory food

By Craig Gima


My first trip to Korea was brief, but long enough to get a taste of Seoul.

Now that Hawaiian Airlines flies to Seoul and you can connect through Korean Airlines to other parts of Asia, Seoul is an alternative to flying through Narita.

Korean Airlines didn't charge extra to change my layover into an overnight stopover in Seoul on a trip back to Hono­lulu from Shanghai, giving me 40 hours to eat and see the sights of South Korea's biggest city.

After a bus ride from the Incheon Airport, I arrived at my hotel near the Nandaemun Gate in downtown Seoul at 7 a.m. and wandered down to the large Nandaemun street market in search of breakfast.

The market covers several blocks, and there are hundreds of stalls selling everything from silkworm soup to socks. The market is just getting up at 7 a.m. But many of the food stalls were open.

In a small side-street restaurant, I ordered samgyetang, a chicken stuffed with rice and fruit and boiled in a ginseng broth.

The rice thickens the broth, and the ginseng flavor adds a subtle note to the chicken soup — a delicious start to a long day of sightseeing.

Tops on the list was the Kimchi Museum in the World Trade Center. It's a long subway ride from downtown, but there's no other museum in the world devoted to kim chee.

The museum is in the basement of Seoul's World Trade Center, fitting for a product sometimes stored underground,

The museum is small — only a few rooms. But here you can learn the history of kim chee, its health benefits, how to make it, its many varieties and — in the last room of the museum — eat free samples.

After the museum I got a craving for — what else — kim chee chige or kim chee stew.

After a stop for lunch, another subway ride away took me to the Seoul National Museum.

The visit here took up the rest of the afternoon. It's easy to spend hours wandering the exhibits holding some of South Korea's national treasures. Three floors are filled with traditional and religious art pieces, and historical artifacts like a fifth-century gold crown from Silla, one of Korea's Three Kingdoms.

The huge, 10-story marble Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda dominates one of the main halls of the museum. Visitors are able to see the pagoda from the walkways of the three floors of the museum, providing a different perspective from each floor.

After a quick stop back at the hotel, it was off to Itaewon, the tourist and night-life district of Seoul.

My hotel — the Millenium Seoul Hilton — offers a free shuttle to Itaewon, an area with shops featuring late-night shopping, restaurants and bars, kind of like a South Korean version of Waikiki.

The area is near the U.S. Army base in Seoul and is popular with off-duty soldiers. U.S. military police patrol the streets along with their Korean counterparts.

The landmark Hamilton Hotel is roughly in the center of Itaewon.

Not really interested in shopping, I wandered around and stopped at a few bars but soon got bored. Wednesday may have been an off night.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped for soondubu chige, soft tofu stew. The late-night snack was easily the highlight of the evening.

The first stop on my last day was the Noryangin Fish Market, a subway ride across the Han River to the southern part of the city.

The market is huge, filled with stall after stall of vendors selling everything from live fish to sea squirts to live baby octopus, which those Travel Channel food show hosts seemed to enjoy.

I was not that daring and skipped the sannakji, especially since friends told me that you have to chew it well so that you don't choke when you swallow the still-wiggling octopus pieces.

Instead, I enjoyed a fish chige from one of the restaurants in the market with rice and a nice spread of banchan, those small dishes that come with every Korean meal.

There are four royal palaces in Seoul. But since time was limited, I spent the afternoon at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main and largest palace in Seoul, and most well known of the four.

The palace was built in 1395 during the Joseon Dynasty. It burned down and was reconstructed in 1867, but the Japanese destroyed many of the wooden buildings during their occupation of Korea in World War II. The palace is being restored again by the South Korean government.

Actors in period costumes re-enact the changing of the guard in front of the palace and parade through the grounds. Children and other visitors can dress up in royal costumes and take pictures.

The grounds are huge and include the main entranceway, several gardens and living quarters.

Above the palace, on what used to be the back garden of the grounds, is the Cheongwadae, or Blue House, the official residence and offices of South Korea's president.

By the time I walked back to the subway station and got back to the hotel, there wasn't time to eat my last meal in Seoul. Instead I found a restaurant at the Incheon Airport serving a beef, mushroom and whole abalone dish simmered in a soy sauce base.

Mashi-isseoyoa delicious end to my taste of Seoul.

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