My Visit to Seoul: Putting Reggae in the Kim Chee Jigae

My Visit to Seoul: Putting Reggae in the Kim Chee Jigae

If you come to visit Seoul, please do not do what I did and take the subway from Gimpo Airport to the Express Bus Station.  it provides for a singularly depressing first view of the city, like something out of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant movie, “Brazil.”  Row after row of housing blocks, no people on the streets and not even a restaurant to break up the monotony.

Fortunately, that first view is a complete misnomer.  Seoul is gloriously alive, bursting at the seams with ambition, energy, kindness, intelligence and youth. Yes, youth! Seoul seems to be exploding with young, talented artists, musicians, fashion designers, dancers and DJs alongside entrepreneurs opening restaurants, galleries, breweries, music clubs and record labels. As a group — and mind I spent only two days in the city — the youth of Korea seem firmly rooted with one foot deep in cultural pride and tradition and the other buried up to the knee in the embracing of the new and cutting edge. As an example, I arrived during what was apparently a very extended Thanksgiving holiday.  Everyone I met had traveled to the countryside, to their family homes for days of filial obligation and graveyard visits — not the one dinner of the US of A — and then rushed back to Seoul to re-join the Zulu Nation or get deep into yours truly’s deep vaults of Jamaican 45s.

This was a working trip — I was in Seoul in my official capacity as a selector of Jamaican music.  The trip was organized by a number of Korean DJs but really, put into motion by my friend Jee Hee and her friends Kyungmin (owner of the great gallery Whistle ) and her husband Taeyoon (an sccomplished musician and artist) — I suspect as much as they wanted to see me play records, they wanted me to fall in love with Seoul.

Their first mission was to rescue me from my hotel and the bleak surroundings that I found myself in (the hotel itself, by the way was absolutely lovely and wonderful — comfortable beds and a shower from heaven). We made for Itaewon — which is the rambling neighborhood surrounding a gigantic American military base.  For years this was a seriously disreputable hood — hookers, drugs, black-market shit, counterfeit clothing — the place you went to cop a fake Gucci bag and ended up getting your sneakers stolen. I won’t go into deep history but remember that the 20th Century was a disaster for Korea — one body blow after another — and it was poor and Itaewon was the living reflection of those hard times. Like the Lower East Side before it, Itaewon is in midst of mass gentrification.  Prices have skyrocketed, restaurants are opening everywhere and your sneakers are 100% safe. Everywhere you look there are African restaurants, Uzbecki restaurants, burger joints with explosive names — ITAEWON NUCLEAR BURGER! — English pubs, art galleries, trendy clothing stores…and yet…and yet…those alleyways creep, that trash isn’t picked up, that graffiti is not being wiped away, that custom suit store looks shady, that smell is definitely raw sewage…Itaewon has some hard-won soul and it is not going away anytime soon.

We started at Magpie Brewing, one of Seoul’s earliest micro-breweries. Koreans can drink.  Like seriously drink. So an appetizer of beer seemed like a pretty great idea. IPAs, Kolsch’s, some dark beer that hit me like a Irish poured Guiness…I like beer.  I like it a lot.  But I am no refined expert, cold and yummy is typically great in my book but hats off to Magpie for their dedication to their craft.

Of course, with a belly full of beer, you need to eat BBQ. Korean BBQ was my first introduction to Korean food.  Early 90s, 3am and we were off and running to 32nd street in Manhattan — a one-block Korean town. I loved the freshness of the food — grilled-at-the-table beef and pork wrapped in lettuce and hit with the pungency of spicy miso and the genius of good kim chee.  Beer and soju and everything was nice.  I have racked up serious time in Korean BBQ restaurants in NYC, my clothes fragrant with fat and smoke as the sun came up and birds began their irritating songs of accusation. Suffice it to say that eating Korean BBQ in Korea was something I was looking forward to .

As mentioned, I arrived during holiday, so some of my friend’s favorite spots were not open but we settled on a two-story meat emporium that looked pretty damn good.  It was packed.  Whole families, salary men, young people on dates ensconced in front of sizzling meats and a dizzying array of Banchan (the free little dishes that come with most Korean meals).  Beer and soju were ordered and soon pork belly was carmalizing on the grill.  Bok — another young Korean of a million talents (dancer, DJ, music producer, probably master-carpenter) — was busy making half soju half beer shots for everyone at the table and I was eyeing the kim chee. Better than NYC. Spicier and fresher in some sort of way that I can’t explain given that we are talking about a fermented food.  The crispy pork, wrapped in lettuce, garnished with julienned green onion, smoky and perfect — my first Korean BBQ in Korea and I was a happy fellow.

Korean food culture is a sharing culture — the fascism of the entrée is mocked.  Democracy reigns supreme here in Seoul with many hands sharing many dishes and endless glasses of frosty beer and soju and toasts to the health and well-being of everyone.  A generous table comes from a culture of generosity and hospitality. By 3am I was already prepared for the dangerous hangover I knew would be arriving.

And it did. And it was serious.  But, Kim Chee, seaweed soup and rice in the morning does a fair job in battling the demons of over-exuberance the night before.

My friend Linus is Korean and was raised in Alabama. His father, an enterprising gent who kept his eyes open, owned a clothing store. The clientele was young and black and they loved this man — they loved how he always had the freshest gear, his fairness, his stoicism in the face of bluster.  In his own way he became a legend of dirty south hip hop — name-checked in songs, photos with stars.  Linus came to NYC and followed one path after another — herbal doctor, real estate, massage — until he decided that he had one serious passion: Alabama BBQ.  Meat alchemy — low and slowly smoked ribs and pork shoulders with a grudging admiration for Texas brisket. He studied with legendary pit masters, joined the competitive BBQ circuit and finally decided to open his own place in Korea.  A homeland in which he had never lived.  Like his father before, Linus has become a legend in the South…well in South Korea.  Linus’Bama Style Barbecue opened in Itaewon about four years ago and was an instantaneous success.  The original restaurant has expanded numerous times and opened a second location this year. It is great. I am a bbq snob — a serious bbq snob and Linus has won my unabashed praises. It is rare to find a BBQ restaurant that serves equally delicious ribs and brisket — the two cuts are such different monsters and have such different requirements that one tends to fail where the other sings.  Not so at Linus’.  Everything I tasted was perfect from the sides to the ribs to the bbq sauce itself.  And smartly, recognizing Korean culinary mores, Linus serves everything so as to be shared even down to tiny buns used in the construction of perfect, bite-sized pulled pork sandwiches.

I had to work that evening so back to my new hotel in Hongdae to banish the last vestiges of my hangover.  Hongdae is a student area and absolutely mobbed at nights.  After showering and feeling human once again, I walked to the club.  Like a lecherous uncle at a high school prom, I could barely take 4 steps without craning my neck at the dozens of restaurants spilling out onto the street, tables piled high with ban chan, mandoo, bubbling stews, live octopus and squid, fishes of all sorts and platters of marbled short ribs. Alas, that night was not about eating.  It was about playing music and I could not have asked for a more enthusiastic audience and great DJs to play with.  People really poured their hearts out and I felt a deep thankfulness to Jamaican music for allowing me the opportunity to commune with all these fine people.

My flight was for the early afternoon and I was frightened.  Frightened that I could be in Korea and not have eaten BeBimBop, the national dish of the country.  It is relatively simple: rice, a variety of pickled and fresh vegetables, fried egg and gochujang (spicy bean paste). Sometimes it is served in a hot stone bowl (dolsot) and sometimes can have slivers of thinly sliced beef or pork.  It is a dish born of poverty — a way of extending leftovers, scraps of protein and whatever is around to fill the belly of a large family. I found my bebimbop at the airport. America — Listen up!!!! Other countries like Japan and Korea have great food at the airport — Hanada alone has something like 60 restaurants!!! Get your act together so people can once again have a modicum of dignity while they travel from one place to the next.

It was a marvelous bebimbop, unlike any I have ever had.  Served in a dolsot it came to the table sizzling, a variety of fish eggs and seaweed spread over the surface mixed with the usual vegetables. I mixed in the gochiuiang, broke the yolk into the rice and scrapped up those delectable crunchy bits that formed around the sides and bottom.  Each bite was heaven of texture and flavor, champagne bubbles of salmon roe and tabiko, crunchy root vegetables, charred rice — ocean and earth in wondrous balance.

If this bebimbop could exist at the airport, imagine the others out there in Seoul?  What about those mandoo I never got to eat?  The stews? The live octopus? The BBQ spots that my friends wanted to take me to? What about the people? Their kindness, their enthusiasm, their humor, their creativity and ambition?

It’s a two-hour flight from Tokyo to Seoul.   The possibilities are endless.

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