IF there was an award for the food most likely to be worshiped in Korea, it would be kimchi. Neither condiment nor main attraction, kimchi connects hyper-modernized Koreans with their traditional past in a distinctively Korean way. People say ‘kimchi!’ instead of ‘cheese’ when their picture is taken. When kimchi prices go up, there are headlines in the newspapers. When Japan began promoting its ‘kimuchi’ in the mid-1990s, Korea raised a diplomatic row. In 2010, the boy band TVXQ took some heat for saying ‘kimuchi’ while being interviewed by a Japanese program.
So yeah, you can safely expect nationalistic pride to pair nicely with the propaganda.
You’ll be served at least one version of kimchi at any Korean restaurant – if you go to a place known for hanjeongsik (한정식, or the royal court meal that comes complete with a tableful of side dishes), you’ll see quite a few! If fresh, the fermented veggies with red pepper paste actually look and taste pretty good (though some varieties can be a bit spicy). The spiciness balances out the relative blandness of the traditional rice and soup meal. Although there are hundreds of varieties, most are made with napa cabbage, radish, cucumbers, or even roots.
Since 1986, the Pulmuwon Kimchi Field Museum has aimed to bring the culture of kimchi to anyone that enters. There’s a lot to learn, for what it’s worth – Koreans have been making kimchi for hundreds of years, using a variety of ways and techniques. On display are dozens of regional varieties of plastic kimchi, along with a small room offering to chance to try kimchi for yourself. Either way, there’s plenty of information about the side dish to be found – much of it in English. Explore the different regional varieties, or just get some pictures of you standing next to displays of plastic Korean food – your call.
Beyond the models of kimchi is a ‘tasting room’ – and this is where it begins to get a bit weird:
Even though it’s inside the COEX mall – one of Seoul’s most popular attractions – its location in a lower basement means you’re unlikely to stumble across it. Make it part of the trip if you’re going to COEX, or bypass the mall and head there specifically.
Ratings (out of 5 taeguks – How do I rate destinations?):
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Address: Seoul-si Gangnam-gu Samseong-dong 159 B2 (AKA the COEX Mall)
Korean address: 서울시 강남구 삼성동 159 지하2층 – 코엑스 몰
Directions: Samseong station, line 2, exit 6. Follow the signs to the mall’s entrance – if in doubt, just follow the masses. Once inside, walk straight; at the first major fork, bear right. From there, turn left just past the 7-11 and head down the escalator to your left
Hours: 10am-6pm (last admission is at 5:30pm) – closed Mondays and major holidays.
Admission: 3,000 won