January 24 2010
A friend in Seoul, knowing my fondness for weird seafood, took me to the wholesale fish market recently. Beyond the huge mounds of king crabs and crates of croaker, he ushered me towards what might politely be described as a piscine delicatessen. Various creatures – sea squirts, sea cucumbers and something called mung gae, which defies physical description but tastes somewhere between sea urchin and bad drains, with an unnerving crunch – were arrayed in tanks. My friend bought a few bits and pieces to sample, which I gamely did, and then he produced a plate of wriggling baby octopus tentacles, like psychedelic linguini. My lack of success in eating these I ascribe partly to a natural inhibition of eating anything that might latch on to my insides – several Koreans die every year in this fashion, apparently – and partly to the local chrome-plated chopsticks, the worst possible implements for slithery food.
Before you pick up the telephone to the RSPCA, let me point out that the octopus had been killed some time before: these were simply post-mortem convulsions. It is not a food to which I shall return, however, partly because there are much better things to eat in Seoul. Bulgogi, for example: barbecued marinated beef (other meats are available, but Korean beef is generally excellent), cooked at the table by the diner, eaten with rice and the ubiquitous, pungent kimchi (cabbage, sometimes fermented, and spiced with chilli and garlic), and washed down with the splendid local spirit, soju. There are numerous places around town: Bulgogi Brothers is a dependable chain, but the back alleys of Jongno-gu offer a more rewarding and atmospheric experience.
At the top end – literally, since it is halfway up Seoul’s most central hill, and has great views – you might try Poom (pictured), which opened a year ago and reinterprets Korean cuisine in a pleasingly calm, minimalist setting. The menu is fiercely seasonal – I tried some fragrant local pine mushrooms, sprinkled with pine nut powder and pine pollen – and dishes are exquisitely presented by chef Sin Yong-Il.
The 35th floor of the huge, five-star Lotte Hotel is now the domain of French über-chef Pierre Gagnaire. I have an inbuilt suspicion of celebrity chefs opening fancy restaurants in Asian cities, but not only was Gagnaire actually there and cooking, his crossover cuisine – a sort of Confucian fusion, I suppose – is very clever and thoroughly delicious. One dish in particular stood out: a sublime assembly of shaved fennel, sieved egg yolk, wasabi, black olive, and… what was that other flavour, hauntingly marine, with a slight whiff of iodine? I asked Gagnaire. “It’s called mung gae,” he told me, smiling. “I found it in the fish market.” That, I thought, is true culinary alchemy: anybody who can make mung gae taste good deserves as many stars as Michelin throw at him.