Is Aunt Wilma making sweet potato casserole this year? Uncle Phil deep-frying the turkey out in the driveway? Granddad carving it up, laying those beautiful, moist pieces on the side of the platter?
Maybe, but your ass won’t be around to partake. You’re going to be here, covered in whiteboard marker stains and the snot of Korean children. Here, dreaming about how Christmas used to be — dreaming of that turkey.
But don’t feel down: Our fair city of Seoul offers genuine ancient-Rome-level-of-indulgence feasts to which turkey dinner (in Korea) pales in comparison, feasts that your friends and family back home cannot imagine eating. So think of this as the Christmas you ate adventurously and take advantage while you can.
Groove Korea wishes you a happy holiday and recommends these alternative feasts for the occasion.
ALTERNATIVE DINNER 1
THE INDIAN FEAST
STANDING IN FOR THE TURKEY:
Tandoori chicken is bright orange, tart, spicy, crunchy, moist and slightly charred. It’s rich and savory. It’s chicken, elevated, and that’s only one dish in this feast.
There’s also crunchy, chewy naan bread covered in shiny butter and garlic, red vindaloo curry loaded with fatty braised mutton and sprinkled with raw chili pepper, sour yogurt raita, and spinach-green palak paneer with fresh, homemade cheese. Then there are the deep-fried samosas, each one a pastry present filled with potatoes, peas and spices.
The average Indian restaurant in Seoul offers a dozen distinct curries, plus a dozen more side dishes with completely different tastes and textures. Nothing matches Indian food when it comes to variety of flavor. Order more than you think you’ll need, and eat until you can’t eat anymore. If there’s still naan on the table when you finish, you have failed.
WHERE TO GET IT: EVEREST
It’s every Seoulite’s favorite Indian restaurant for a reason. Not only has the Guru family of Nepal been putting heart and soul into their food for more than a decade, but they’ll win you over with their eye-catching décor as well. From the Nepali knickknacks strewn everywhere to the Bollywood movies playing on a big-screen TV in the corner, this place has got character covered.
Dishes are flavorful and reasonably priced. Their cooks don’t skimp on spice, the sign of a serious Indian restaurant. If you don’t want to hallucinate, your mouth on fire and your forehead dripping with sweat, then for the love of Shiva don’t order the vindaloo. But if you’re into that kind of thing, nothing else in Seoul will compare.
Walk straight from Dongdaemun Station, exit 3, and make the first left after about 50 meters. Walk another 50 meters and look to your right. Everest is on the second floor.
Phone: (02) 766-8850
Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu, Changsin-dong 148-1
ALTERNATIVE DINNER 2
CENTRAL ASIAN FEAST
STANDING IN FOR THE TURKEY:
Maybe it’s the hot borscht full of chunks of beet and topped with sour cream. Maybe it’s the flaky samsas stuffed with fatty lamb. Maybe it’s the strong, tasty alcohol. Maybe it’s a wonderful boozy, lamby, soupy combination. The fact remains: There’s something about Central Asian food that warms the body and soul like nothing else.
Seoul hosts a cluster of Uzbek, Kazakh and Russian restaurants near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. A feast there should start with grilled lamb on a spiraling steel skewer (the chicken is good, too), borscht and cabbage rolls. Genuine Russian vodka and beer is plentiful in the area, and copious consumption of it will make the night paradoxically more memorable. There are also little Russian grocery stores in the area that sell addictive smoked cheese, summer sausages and booze.
WHERE TO GET IT: FUSION
Fusion is not as famous as other restaurants in the neighborhood, but it’s also not as grungy. Located on the second floor and looking out over Dongdaemun, it’s well suited for group celebrations. The food here is hearty and comforting, and their menu has all the Central Asian and Russian staples: borscht, cabbage rolls, perogies, samsas and, of course, grilled and skewered lamb. But the fun truly begins with your first bottle of Nemiroff, a Ukrainian vodka that is considered one of the best in the world.
Sure they have the normal clear stuff, but just try and resist the bottle of amber-colored liquid with its gold label and little red chili pepper bobbing at the bottom. That’s the Nemiroff Honey-Pepper, and it’s as sweet and spicy and fiery as you might expect. Between shots of the strong stuff, enjoy a Russian Baltika beer. They serve several styles, ranging from a crisp, “classic” lager to an 8 percent.
Walk out of Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station, exit 5. After about 50 meters, you’ll come into an intersection. Fusion is across the street, on the second floor.
Phone: (02) 2269-0297
ALTERNATIVE DINNER 3
THE SEAFOOD FEAST
STANDING IN FOR THE TURKEY: KING CRAB
Don’t want steamed snails? Too bad, you’re getting them — along with a lot of other stuff that comes from the sea that you may or may not want to eat. But go ahead and eat it. This feast is about enjoying something you’ll only find here: the Korean seafood market sit-down.
While perusing the many sea creature–chocked aquariums of the fish market, find one with the mix of creatures you like best. Pick out a live fish, negotiate a price (usually between 30,000 won and 60,000 won, depending on the size of the fish) and the stall worker will scoop it out, slice it up and bring it out sashimi-style right to your table.
The sea critters come with many, many side dishes, which could include any of the following: fish soup, fish skin, small fish, cuttlefish, snails, squirts, squid, crabs, oysters, shrimp, sea cucumber, scallops, corn and “sea penises.”
But instead of a fish for your Christmas feast, pick out a giant primordial sea-insect with deliciously sweet flesh: a king crab. You’ll pay extra for it (more than 100,000 won each), but hey, it’s Christmas, and the experience is worth it. One king crab is filled with enough soft, white meat to feed a group of four.
WHERE TO GET IT: NORYANGJIN FISH MARKET
Seafood feasts are best enjoyed seaside, so if you can make it to Incheon or Busan, go there. But we Seoulites are lucky to have the country’s largest fish market right here in the city. Noryangjin Fish Market is a major tourist attraction, and rightfully so. Walking its sprawling aisles and checking out the ocean’s bounty all divvied up and stuck into blue aquariums is an unforgettable experience.
Restaurants all around the market sport the “buy a fish, get a feast” setup. The men and women working the individual stands will do their best to draw you in with promises of good prices and extra side dishes. Find a king crab for a reasonable price and grab your spot on the vinyl-covered floor of the nearest restaurant — you’re in for a seafood treat.
Walk north out of Noryangjin Station and cross the railroad tracks. Follow your nose — you can’t miss it.
Address: Seoul, Dongjak-gu, Noryanjin-dong 13-8
ALTERNATIVE DINNER 4
THE VEGGIE FEAST
STANDING IN FOR THE TURKEY:
MORE EDIBLE PLANTS THAN YOU KNEW EXISTED
Remember that feeling you used to get after eating a big turkey dinner? That feeling of not knowing whether to vomit, fall asleep or quietly pass on from this world of gluttony into a cleaner, fresher afterlife? Well, you won’t get that feeling after eating the intimidating spread of fresh flora that is Korean temple food.
Insa-dong is a mecca when it comes to gorging on all varieties of modestly flavored plants laid out in their colorful glory. There are roots, there are stems and there are leaves. So many leaves. And you get to enjoy them all in the quiet, quaint atmosphere of an old wooden house.
Korea’s temple food restaurants serve a lot of raw greens, but they also serve hot and cold porridges, tempura-style fried veggies, pancakes, soups and teas. One of the biggest pleasures of eating temple food is the variety of texture from dish to dish to dish. It’s a Christmas dinner that will leave you feeling both lighter and enlightened.
WHERE TO GET IT: SANCHON
Sanchon is the city’s most famous temple food restaurant, and one of the city’s most famous restaurants, period. It’s been around for decades, doling out vegan fare in the middle of touristy Insa-dong. The New York Times first brought the restaurant to the world’s attention with a review in the 1980s.
Sanchon serves the full range of traditional Buddhist vegan food; your table will be so covered with little dishes full of minced and chopped greens that you’ll never tire of sampling bites here and there. Patrons sit on the floor and eat at low wooden tables, with ambiance provided by the lotus lanterns that hang from the ceilings. Fully embracing their status as a tourist draw, they even have traditional Korean dance performances at dinnertime.
Sanchon is located about 50 meters east of the main Insa-dong street, between Insa-dong 10-gil and Insa-dong 4-gil.
Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu, Gwanhun-dong 14
Phone: (02) 735-0312
ALTERNATIVE DINNER 5
THE SOUTHERN FEAST
STANDING IN FOR THE TURKEY: SPARE RIBS
In the strange and beautiful 1980 film “Altered States,” William Hurt plays a scientist trying to get in touch with humanity’s primal roots. Spoiler alert: He does. At one point in the film, he’s actually transformed into a hairy, ravenous proto-human. In his altered state, he heads for the zoo, where he finds and murders a small hoofed animal, devours it partly and falls asleep.
You can do that too, sort of. You see, Southern food has come to Seoul, and one aspect of Southern food in particular: barbecue. There are now several restaurants in the Itaewon area serving up pulled pork and ribs. Nothing says “feast” like holding the rib cage of a small hoofed animal in your hands and ripping pieces of tender flesh off as the barbecue sauce collects in your beard.
WHERE TO GET IT:
JR SOUTHERN STYLE BARBECUE
To get to the heart of JR, you have to go to the roof, where chef Dan Kang’s custom-built smoker sits, cooking slabs of pork, beef and chicken at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. JR has only been open for a few months, but they’ve already made a splash in the increasingly trendy Itaewon food scene. They serve slow-cooked pork ribs and shoulder, beef brisket and chicken, and all of it has spent hours in the smoker. For sides, they serve gumbo, the classic Louisiana stew, as well as potato salad, coleslaw and cornbread.
In honor of Christmas, JR is adding yams, collard greens, smoked turkey and ham to the menu. The core of your feast should be the “JR BBQ Giant Smoked Meats Taster Platter,” which is just as tantalizing as it sounds.
Walk straight out of Itaewon Station, exit 4. After a short walk, JR is on the left, on the second and third floors.
Address: Seoul, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon-dong 128-9
Phone: (02) 749-1235