15 July 2012

Seoul: Sanchon

My last full day in Korea was dark and stormy.  I switched on my inner sunshine and, thanks to Little Miss Every-idea-pops-out-of-my-head-fully-formed-and-amazing Shelley, I decided to make the trek up Mount Namsan to see the whole city.  It made me so hungry I got a billion-course Buddhist lunch - one course for every person in India.


The Buddhist lunch was a deliberately planned experience.  Like I'd travel to Asia and miss the chance to scarf down a 100% vegan meal while trying to look like I'm meditating (or at least less like I'm scarfing).  You cannot miss this place.  If you travel to or live in or near Seoul and you fail to eat here, I will personally hunt you down and kick your unenlightened patootie.

off Insadong-gil
Jongno-gu, Seoul
South Korea

To find Sanchon, head down Insadong-gil and look for a 2-storey Japanese restaurant.  Turn into the alley it sits on and follow it peacefully to the end of the path.  You'll know Sanchon when you see it.  The mere sight will probably detox your colon.  It is like, SEW Buddhist, you guys.  Ermahgerd.

Remove your shoes and have a look around.  Have you ever seen anything like this?  Sure.  In movies about medieval East Asia.  The water, the skylights, the plants, the bodhisattvas... and the food.  As Samuel L. Jackson once said in the classic film Dinosaurs Are Not Our Friends, "Hold on to your butts."

Pictures of Korea
Whether you come for dinner or lunch (or at 3pm, like I did), you get approximately 30 separate dishes.  And tea.  For W33,000 ($28.93).  This is pricey for Seoul, but it's worth it.  Here are all the things:
Steven Sanderson Photography
  • Green tea
  • Watery plain kimchi
  • Sticky rice pastry
  • Glass noodles
  • 3 veggie pancakes
  • 3 veggie fritters
  • Chili peppers (don't just chomp these - use 'em as a condiment.  Learn from my mistake.  Unless you grew up inside a serrano.)
  • Crunchy white veggie
  • Jelly with nori
  • Crunchy veggie wrapped in greens
  • Crispy packing peanut*
  • Fried kelp
  • Rice
  • Cabbage soup
  • Eggplant with peppers
  • Sticky sweet ball
  • Green and brown rolls
  • Fermented salad
  • Kimchi
  • Small potato glazed with soy sauce and millet syrup
  • Sweet and sour beans
  • Tofu porridge
  • 6 salads with greens
  • Tofu salad
  • Soybean tofu stew
  • Tempura with dipping sauce

If I try to describe each dish, I'll get carpal tunnel and your eyeballs will dry up.  Instead, I'll simply subject you to a "brief" description of my 4 faves.

The veggie pancakes blew me away.  They were dense and glutinous, full of vegetable matter, and FRIED.  Each of the 3 contained a different veggie, and they were yummy with kimchi - but they didn't require the flavor augmentation.  They were perfect.

I'm a sucker for eggplant (how many times have you read that particular phrase?  Don't answer that).  This was unreal.  Not only did it melt in my mouth, but it really packed a full, salty, wonderful taste in.  The peppers were good and crispy, too - not overdone.

You know potato salad?  You know how you feel mediocre about it, even if it's vegan?  Well, the tofu salad is chunky, cold, and creamy like that, but the flavor is 800,000 times better.  The tofu really shines - 'cause in Asia, they know how to make tofu.  Even before it's cooked, the process of making it from soybeans is perfect and magical so that by the time it hits the kitchen you barely have to touch it in order to harness its true potential.  Here it was almost like paneer (Indian cheese).  Whatever they mixed in there with it made the flavor sing.

Lastly, the tempura.  Battered and deep fried veggies.  Usually it's got egg in the batter, so you can imagine how much I peed my pants when I got to eat some.  These Buddhists sure know how to do tempura - it was crispy and salty with the super-yummy dipping sauce, and the taste of veggies shone through.  I was in vegan Nirvana.

Practically speaking, that's too much food for one person.  Bring a friend.  And maybe some tupperware.

Thus ends my magical Korean food adventure!  I already miss it.  And now, 10 days after getting home, I'm in Seattle with Mom.  Isn't that just too nutty?

* While packing peanuts are in fact edible, I have a feeling there's probably something less soul-devouring about these ones.

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