Seoul's Congdu restaurant serves something old, something new, something borrowed and something ... green?
Author CINDY-LOU DALE
WHILE JUST ABOUT EVERY CITY on earth is a blend of old and new, in Seoul this is such a defining feature that it’s sometimes disconcerting. Here, the young and the old exist on either side of a divide so deep—ranging across food, clothing, housing and lifestyle choices—that the South Korean capital seems to have two identities jockeying for dominance. Yet cultural harmony may be taking root, starting where all great compromises begin: the food.
Leading this gastronomic sea change is Congdu, a 16-table concept restaurant in the Seodaemun Museum of Natural History. The setting is appropriate, given owner Vivian Han’s mission to reinvent traditional Korean cooking using molecular gastronomy techniques and color themes. And soybeans. Lots of soybeans.
Han expected that modernizing Korean cooking—which has few ties to the French and Scandinavian schools that have revolutionized high-end cuisine in the rest of the world—would be a challenge. So in 2002 she hired chef Eric Kim, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants Aqua, Coi and Noma, then built him a kitchen and let him have his way.
These days the Congdu kitchen is overseen by chef Hwan Eui Lee, who shares Kim’s aesthetic. “I combine traditional Korean and French molecular techniques,” Lee says. “It’s playing with familiar local cuisine by adding a creative twist.” This results in such dishes as tiramisu made with tofu instead of mascarpone, beef tartare with caviar marinated in three different-aged soy sauces, and potato noodles soaked in a green soy milk broth and topped with crunchy turnip noodles.
As for the restaurant’s focus on the soybean, Han says it’s not only a healthy ingredient, but also pivotal in making old flavors new. “The diversity of the foods you can make using soybeans allowed us to use these new techniques on traditional recipes,” she says.
Congdu’s three color-themed prix fixe menus, meantime, evoke traditional Asian concepts (energy meridians, feng shui) while providing a foundation for molecular hijinks—think foams, powders and dehydrated bits. Dishes appear in flights of orange, green or white; however, as in color therapy, sometimes the actual colors are only implied. The green menu, for example, includes the aforementioned (and quite green) soy milk soup but also a decidedly fish-colored grilled fish served with a bowl of green tea. So while all the offerings may not actually be green, they’re meant to make you feel green—in this case, happier and more harmonious. And with harmony on the rise among Seoul diners, can it be far behind for the city’s generational divide?
In the trendy, youthful areas of Seoul, particularly near Hongik University and in the Gangnam district, hip bars called jujeoms have taken to serving a very old kind of alcohol—makgeolli, a milky rice wine once quaffed by farmers—in an unusual way. They offer the mildly peanut-flavored beverage alongside fresh fruit juice, or mix the two together to create brightly colored cocktails similar to smoothies. We asked Kim Ena, a bartender at the wine bar Wolhyang, how to make one of the latter.
1 1/2 oz. brown makgeolli
3 oz. white makgeolli
3 1/2 oz. tonic water
Honey to taste
1/2 kiwi fruit, peeled
Toss the kiwi fruit into a blender with the other ingredients. Blend thoroughly and pour into a cold punch bowl or wide-mouth glass. Serve.
Given that Korea is known for an unflinching dedication to spicy dishes, it’s no surprise that a major comfort food here—akin to mac and cheese in the U.S. or mashed potatoes in the U.K.—consists of rice noodles swimming in a nuclear-orange sauce made of red-hot peppers.
Originally a mild, savory dish of the Korean royal court, tteokbokki is a stew of noodles, scallions, seasoned fried fish cakes and, most important, gochuchang, a toe-curling red pepper sauce. Tteokbokki rapidly increased in heat in the years following the Korean War and soon appeared on street corners and dining room tables. In the past few years, dedicated fast-food tteokbokki shops have popped up all over Seoul, attracting locals looking for a quick meal and foreigners wary of traditional unlicensed pojangmacha (covered wagon) street vendors.
Each tteokbokki shop, like the corporate franchise Jaws on Hong-Dae Street, offers a different take. “There are lots of versions these days, some containing braised beef or sausage,” says Daniel Gray, chief marketing officer of Seoul’s O’ngo Food Tours. “Some outlets even like to make tteokbokki a complete meal by adding eggs and greens, or more noodles.” Popular shabu-shabu joint Chaesundang, for instance, has a Korean sausage variation and one accompanied by gunmandu (pan-fried dumplings) served with fried gopchang (small intestines). The one constant, it seems, is that sauce. Want a fan with that? —C.D.