I just spent a few days in Seoul, South Korea. It can be a tough city for vegetarians, as meat and seafood feature prominently in modern Korean cuisine. And then there is the language barrier and my lack of understanding about local restaurant customs to make it even more challenging. But thanks to great on-line guides like Happy Cow, street food, and jet-lag-induced hunger suppression, we managed to do fine.
The culinary highlight of the visit was definitely Sanchon, a restaurant in the Insadong area that specializes in temple cuisine cooked in a vegetarian style. The restaurant is tucked away in a maze of alleys off of the main street in Insadong. Paintings, drums, sculpture, richly-hued wooden tables, and elaborate lamps transport the diner to another world.
We went at lunch time and had the set lunch (22,000 won, about $16.50), which was outlined on the menu — but subject to change as the wild greens and mushrooms they use vary during the year. The menu spelled out 20 items: various salads, picked vegetables, noodle dishes, and tea.
A few minutes after we ordered, the avalanche of dishes began. The first item was cool rice noodles in a vegetable broth with pickled greens. Next were small rolled crepes filled with greens and served with a dipping sauce. Moments after we started eating the crepes, the server brought a wide, short basket with seven small bowls of various preparations. Then came another tray of about ten bowls — glass noodles, fresh tofu with sauce, house-made acorn jelly, several kimchis (which can be made in a variety of ways from a variety of ingredients, as our visit to the Kimchi Field Museum illustrated), and a few other items. Finally, a server brought a hot stone bowl filled with bubbling stew.
It was a bit overwhelming. With nothing as the focus of the meal, we grazed at this item or that, taking a bite or two before moving on to the next item. There were winners — the somewhat coarse fresh tofu, the vibrant kimchi, the starter soup, and the glass noodles — and losers — the bubbling stew and some of the small green preparations contained herbs that shocked my tastebuds (sometimes chrysanthemum, sometimes herbs unknown to me).
For dessert we had spiced cold tea and hollow rice cakes that were covered with crispy bits and black sesame seeds. Unlike the dense, ultra-chewy rice cakes sold in nearby markets, these were light and delicious.
Overall, it was quite an experience and one I’ll probably repeat if I’m lucky enough to revisit Seoul someday. I would have preferred to have a medium-sized bowl of the glass noodles or the starter soup and only half of the small dishes, but that’s not it works at Sanchon.