During the summer of 2014, I found myself on a flight to Seoul, South Korea, miserably sandwiched between one snoring man and one kid who never got the memo about how staring at strangers for extended periods of time is creepy. Plane rides are so fun, right, guys?
Little did I know, after touching down and feeling my hair explode from all the humidity (I’m a desert baby, my curly mane was not prepared). I would soon find a new addiction in the form of a particularly beautiful and painful Korean dish.
Spoiler alert: That dish was called Kongbul. I know, I know. I can almost hear the chorus of: Kong-what? as you furiously google the dish, kicking your foodie-self for not being in the know.
Well, don’t fret. I’ll let you in on my spicy little secret… Kongbul is defined by Wikipedia as “…a combination of bulgogi, bean sprouts, rice cake, vegetables, noodles, sausages, spicy sauce and etc.” The popular South Korean dish is loved by students thanks to its low price which pretty much means that it has the trifecta of important qualities for any college grub. It’s cheap, delicious, and easy.
I first came across Kongbul when one of my fellow American students introduced it to me and my friends. She had been in Seoul, one of the largest and most popular destinations in South Korea, for a year at that point, doing an exchange program through The University of New Mexico. Out of all of us, she was the one who had the most insider information on delicious eats in the area.
We created a group chat on Facebook aptly named “Kongbul is a Drug” and made plans to congregate outside our dorm, eventually making the trek to a small restaurant situated between neon signs and markets in the vibrant neighborhood of Hongdae.
When my friends and I got to the Kongbul spot, we were all feeling excited about the experience, but also saying to ourselves: “This restaurant could easily be someone’s living room. What are we doing right now?”
Our experienced friend insisted that we trust her though, and the rumbling in our stomachs prevented us from making any real objections. Never judge a book by its cover, right?
The four of us sat down and ordered a community bowl of Kongbul in clumsy Korean. We watched as the woman poured the ingredients into a cooking receptacle in front of us. By this point we were ravenous, and this dance of bulgogi, tteokbokki, bean sprouts, and noodles was unbearable.
The woman added a red, dangerous looking sauce to the mix and gave us the go ahead to dig in. (Spoon contributor Kei Yamaya helped me identify this sauce as “gochujang” in her article about korean food).
Needless to say, we didn’t hesitate to start stuffing our faces. The spice was painful; borderline sadistic, and this is coming from a native New Mexican who prescribes to the notion that green chile makes literally anything taste better.
Despite the heat, though, it was delicious. As we finished our feast, sweat dripping from our brows and fiery goodness boiling in our bellies, we all looked at each other, silently agreeing that we had made a good call.
So if you’re ever in Seoul, don’t be afraid of trying something new. Dare to try eateries off the beaten path, especially if those eats are cheap. We’re all trying to pay off our tuition and irresponsible Saturday nights in a timely manner after all.
Food is a wonderful way to experience a new culture and its history, and Korean cuisine is certainly no exception. Whether you’re from Antarctica, Hawaii, or good ol’ Seoul: we all gotta eat. Might as well spice it up with some Kongbul.