Seafood stars in Seoul, writes Stephanie Wood.
'You can't eat all day," says Daniel Gray, leading me into the toy department of the Alpha stationery store in Seoul's Namdaemun market area. "This is a little cultural excursion."
I've spent the morning following the food blogger around a fish market. I've eaten oysters and crab and sashimi with him for lunch. Now he wants me to meet a red-haired doll with flatulence issues.
"She's so cute, huh?" he says. "Kong Suni" is the toy of the moment in South Korea. She wears a yellow frock and comes with a bowl of plastic food, a toilet to sit on and a plastic poo that can be "flushed" away - with sound effects. She looks at us hopefully through the plastic panel of her box as Gray explains that you feed her the plastic food, press her tummy and she passes wind.
"She farts because she's eating cereal and Western food and not good Korean food," Gray says. He has barely a trace of a smile. But that's not surprising. The earnest Korean-American takes his Korean food seriously.
Gray has been in the right place at the right time to surf the "Korean wave", a barrage of attention directed at the country's culture, from food to film and music (think Psy's Gangnam Style); Gray's business, O'ngo Food, offers cooking classes and food tours that can be customised if requested.
I have one request. I do not want to eat live octopus. I've seen them in tanks outside restaurants - squirming masses of them, waiting to be doused in sesame oil and swallowed whole. By all accounts, a form of extreme eating popular with those who have more beer and soju in them than sense.
But I have no reservations about consuming other creatures of the sea, and Gray starts our day at the Noryangjin Fish Markets in central Seoul. First stop, the goldfish pastry woman's stand. With gloved hand she pours a waffle mixture from a kettle into a cast-iron mould in the shape of a goldfish. She adds a filling of red bean paste, pours in more waffle batter, then shuts the mould. As it roasts over charcoal, Gray tells me she's popular with market workers who come to eat her pastries, huddle around her brazier, drink soju and gossip.
We're off then, steaming goldfish in hand, following our noses into the market. This isn't stuff you'll see in your local fish shop: towers of cockles and whelks; clusters of abalone clinging to the glass of their tanks; knife fish like fine sheets of silver; fish with stripes and fish with desirable innards - like the lumpen monkfish, displayed rudely eviscerated to show the worth of its liver. The penis fish, or gaebul, smooth, neutered little things, are the stuff of giggles; the sea squirts in their spiky extra-terrestrial armour not for the faint-hearted.
Gray is thinking about lunch now. He's considering a giant Russian crab. The most delicious thing at the market, he says. He squeezes a crab leg here and another there, looking for meat, a Korean Peninsula version of Hansel and Gretel's witch. He finds a nice plump one and we move on. There's a fish to kill.
Lunch comes with an entree of casual brutality. At a restaurant in the market we hand over our crab and a bag of oysters and they disappear into the kitchen. But our fish, rock cod, is ready to eat. Minutes before we had watched as a vendor netted it, put a spike through its head, then removed head, tail, fins, scales, skin, bones and gut. Now it's laid out in neat sashimi-slivers.
We wrap the remains of the little fish in sesame leaves with chunks of garlic and green chilli and ssamjang dipping sauce, wash it down with beer and, when the steamed crab and fried, battered oysters arrive, forget it altogether.
The credits are rolling on the Korean soap on the television on the wall near the kitchen when I lean back and declare defeat. But wait, there's more. Our leftover Alaskan crab has been rushed to the kitchen and quickly reappears in fried rice - served, in a nice retro touch, in its shell.
I'm grateful for a post-lunch detour through Namdaemun market area. After Gray has introduced me to the flatulent doll in the Alpha stationery store he gives me 10 minutes or so for shopping. I fill a basket with presents for children back home - cute rubber stamps, an electronic toy microphone, a game featuring plastic doughnuts - and then Gray is on the move again. He wants me to try the Namdaemun hotteok.
We push through the crowds past ginseng shops selling ginseng capsules, ginseng tea and ginseng steeped in alcohol. Past shops selling the Korean spirit, soju. Past stalls piled high with faux fur and others featuring padded underwear for men and women. Past takeaway food stands selling fish cakes wrapped in hot dogs and hot dogs crusted with french fries on a stick.
We join the queue at the hotteok stall. There's a rumour that its owner is a millionaire, says Gray. Perhaps the woman stuffing a mixture of sweet potato noodles and vegetables into dough is the owner. Or maybe the millionaire is the worker frying the pancakes, flattening them with a stamp-like implement and sticking cooked ones in paper cups.
As I take my first bite of the steaming snack, Gray briefs me on our next stop. It's something of a Korean cultural icon, he reveals. In a cab, speeding through the Seoul dusk, he tells me of the national reverence for deep-fried chicken, Korean style. Hong Cup, a sub-basement space in Hongdae, the city's happening university area, is Gray's preferred venue for the snack. Boneless chunks of chicken drenched in sweet-spicy sauce are served in paper cups with "L-O-V-E" on the side. There are cups of somaek on our table (a shot of soju with beer) and cool kids at the next one.
The clientele at our dinner destination are more conservative. We can see them through the steamed-up windows of Yemat Seoul Bulgogi in the Mapo district. They look warm. We're shivering in a queue on the footpath and admiring a large photograph of the restaurant's owner on the restaurant's facade. He looks like Korea's answer to Confucius, all straggly beard and wise expression. When we're finally given a table, we discover he's superintending the kitchen.
Gray manages the ordering, although it seems we'll be having what everyone else seems to be having - noodles, meat, vegetables and soup. Our table is effectively a barbecue - a burner and charcoal over which sits a domed copper pan with a hat-like brim. Waiters pile our table with ingredients - marinated beef, mushrooms, onions, green onion. Gray takes control of the tongs, laying the beef strips and onion on the copper to cook and simmering the remainder of the ingredients in broth in the brim.
These are brilliant flavours. Little wonder then that, around us, people are voluble and merry. They're also red faced. I look at Gray. He's looking decidedly less earnest and has acquired a ruddy complexion. I'm not surprised then, when he orders more beer and soju. Daniel Gray's food tours end with a drinking game.
The writer was a guest of Korea Tourism Organisation in Seoul.
Korean Air has a daily fare to Seoul for about $1290 low-season return from Sydney, including tax; see koreanair.com. Melbourne passengers can buy a separate fare to Sydney to connect. Asiana Airlines also flies daily from Sydney for about the same fare.
The Park Hyatt Seoul in Gangnam-gu gets plaudits for its chic design. seoul.park.hyatt.com.
The Westin Chosun is near the palaces and the shopping areas of Myeongdong and Insadong. See echosunhotel.com/Eseoul.action.
Daniel Gray, who blogs at seouleats.com, leads food tours in Seoul, ranging from a two-hour street food tour ($US35) to the Gangnam-Style food tour ($US120). See ongofood.com/taste-tour/food-tours-in-seoul.