Contrary to K-pop(ular) belief, Korea is not all catchy or kitschy music groups, fashion, beauty, and strange, sometimes unidentifiable foods. A lot has changed – well, maybe not the surplus of strange snacks – from Korea’s not-so-distant past.
Anthony Bourdain visited (South) Korea just twice: to film season 2 (episode 11) of No Reservations in 2006 and again almost a decade later to film season 5 (episode 1) of Parts Unknown in 2015. These two episodes provide us with a sense of both the country’s enduring spirit and continued growth. In both instances, Tony is accompanied by his former producer, Nari Kye, who is Korean-American and left the country as a young child.
As a half-Korean (me, Presley!), who grew up with a single Korean mother, this more intimate look into the culture as well as Tony’s eventual loving enthusiasm for the place struck a chord… and an immediate craving for my mom’s homemade kimchi.
If you’re inspired to visit Korea to explore this country’s culture and food, here’s a guide to the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Korea.
No Reservations (2006)
Tony arrives in Korea after a long flight on KoreaAir incredibly jet-lagged and *cough* a bit unwilling to engage. Nonetheless, Nari insists immediate sleep would be unacceptable, claiming jetlag is simply “mind over matter.” Visibly thrilled, she directs the cab driver to take them for some street food.
Korean street food is incredibly popular and prevalent, especially in the energetic city of Seoul.
Tony and Nari make a stop at a street-side stall in Gwangjang Market where they are served a specialty medley composed of blood sausage (순대), “glass” noodles, squid, rice cakes (떡), and more, slathered in sweet-spicy chili paste (고추장)-based sauce. Pretty much instantaneously, Tony admits he’s been cured of jet lag and is officially in his comfort zone here.
Noryangjin Fish Market (노량진 수산시장)
Tony labels Korea a “fish and rice culture.” As such, there’s no other way to experience the crux of the country’s food culture other than by arriving at the city’s most prominent fish market, Noryangjin, in the wee hours of the morning to watch the daily auction filled with vibrant back-and-forth yelling.
For Tony’s first taste, Nari picks out a small but live octopus (낙지) which is promptly butchered and served up, immediately, still wriggling and writhing on the plate.
Tony dips a bite into chili paste sauce and pops it into his mouth. Commenting on the struggle to un-stick the octopus’s still very sticky tentacles from his inner cheek, Tony terms the experience “Hemingway’s *still* moveable feast.”
Following a brief fever-dream-esque scene of Tae Kwon Do and dancing, Tony and Nari take a trip about two hours southeast of Seoul to the town of Yeongcheon.
The camera pans over a vast field filled with rows of large brown clay pots, typically used to ferment kimchi through the cold season. Here, they’re known for their production of not only kimchi, but also mainly chili paste, fermented bean paste, and soy sauce.
Tony and Nari get the chance to take part in some kimchi-making, during which we see the makers carefully coat each and every leaf with the prepared marinade. To this, Tony compares the dish to a fine wine or stinky cheese.
After Nari gets her fill of “kimchi therapy,” they meet with the town’s mayor, Mr. Han, for a meal of Korean pancakes (파전), oysters, pork, bean paste stew (된장찌개), and, of course, kimchi.
Han Tan River (한탄강)
Nari brings Tony to the Han Tan River, which runs along the border of South and North Korea, to go fishing in preparation for dinner with Nari’s grandfather.
Although Tony notably dislikes fishing scenes for the reason that they never yield successful footage, he finds the fisherman’s net promising and breaks into a smile when the net returns with not one but many fish within it.
They then retreat to the unassuming nearby waterside Han Tan River Fish Restaurant known for serving up the freshest catch of the day. Here, Nari’s grandfather recounts his escape from the North as a young man.
Having lived just twenty minutes north of the border, he fled by foot to the South (Munsan, Korea) and awaited his wife and young children’s subsequent escape a year later. Now, he claims his final wish is to return to his hometown just once more, to see his childhood world, visit his parent’s graves, and “cry his heart out.”
Unnamed Street Food Stall
Upon returning to “bustling, frenetic” Seoul, after making pit stops at both an arcade and video “bang” (방 meaning “room”), Tony and Nari stop to indulge in more street food.
Characteristically gorging in unholy amounts of soju (소주, a distilled alcoholic beverage), Tony remarks on the delicious tenderness of the chicken feet dish they share. Additionally, the two exchange a humorous back-and-forth about their second dish – chicken gizzard (똥집) – which Nari explains is named, literally, “poop house” in Korean.
If you know exactly where Bourdain ate, please let me know by commenting at the end of this post.
Korean Charcoal Factory
Following a night of karaoke against Tony’s will (cue Tony yelling “NO KARAOKE. EVER.”), Nari brings him to a charcoal factory outside of the city used as both a BBQ and a traditional sauna (to get the most use out of the heat provided by the charcoal!).
Here, over a sizzling tabletop of pork belly (삼겹살), Tony is seen smiling, laughing, and noting this as a “rare moment when making TV doesn’t suck.”
Parts Unknown (2015)
In this episode, Tony first explains that everything starts from the end and moves backward, showing a week filled with blurry, overstimulating experiences. A speedy, confusing montage filled with beer, soju, and intoxicated banter follows, throwing us into the thick of it in a very Tony fashion.
Ggu Da Dak
Tony’s first stop, which is actually his final stop, is to a Korean fried chicken restaurant, Ggu Da Dak, with Nari.
Tony shares flashbacks to his questionably trauma-inducing spa experience from the day prior, just before digging into a fried chicken leg– noticeably juicy, audibly crispy.
As someone who’s had the stuff firsthand, I can vouch: Korean fried chicken is one for the gods. I don’t know how they do it, but they do. This is the kind of thing dreams are made of… and I often dream about that once-in-a-lifetime crisp, juicy meal. All I’m saying is that Korean fried chicken isn’t NOT on my top ten list of reasons to bear a 14-hour flight. I’ll take Tony’s inclusion of the Korean-specific recipe in his cookbook Appetites as a star of approval.
Following yet another intense karaoke scene, Tony is seen walking along Seoul’s streets at night, arm-in-arm with a group of Korean men wearing business suits.
For those who’ve read Tom Vitale’s In The Weeds, you know that this ordeal was unplanned and that these men are, essentially, randomly-picked strangers. Tony notes that almost everyone in the restaurant – Jeongdaepo – they’ve come to is also wearing a suit.
Nonetheless, everyone enjoys towers of beer and soju, rice wine (막걸리), BBQ, oysters, and more. In this scene, the Korean cultural love for nostalgia and child-like games is front and center, prime with bottle-cap-flicking, egg-spinning, and a round of the classic numbers game.
Unnamed PC Bang
As Tony mentions in the episode, “bangs” (방) or “rooms” are all over the place in Seoul, and a PC or gaming room is just one popular spot for regulars. Professional gaming is taken quite seriously in Korea, just as physical sports are in other countries. Successful, popular professional players can and have made it big by simply being the best at different video games.
Thus, given the seriousness of the matter, this lounge is not only stocked with its own snacks and energy drinks, but a full-service restaurant, as well. Here, Tony has a bowl of 짜장면 (noodles in black bean sauce) and attempts to learn the basics of gaming.
If you know exactly which PC Bang Bourdain visited, please let me know by commenting at the end of this post.
Tony meets up with Mark Yin, a member of the hip-hop group “Drunken Tiger” born in the US but moved to Korea as an adult and worked to popularize Western hip-hop in the country.
Together they chat at a streetside food stall, called a pojangmacha, and Mark orders what’s referred to as the “soup of death” – a silkworm stew (번데기탕) – and pork skin (돼지 껍데기) for Tony to try.
Mark explains that, though he felt compelled to live in his ancestral country and feels at home in Korea, many locals do not and never will view him as truly Korean. He is deemed a “gyopo,” a Korean who lives abroad. As such, he often feels the need to connect and prove himself as a “true Korean” by eating the stranger, more strongly identifiable Korean dishes. With food undeniably being the central love language of Korea, this act often brings about a greater feeling of bonding and acceptance. Tony understands this sentiment to his core.
If you know exactly which pojangmacha Bourdain visited, please let me know by commenting at the end of this post.
Finally, the episode ends with Tony’s actual first stop – Garak (가락) market with Nari. Tony admits to Nari how much he has craved and missed eating 반찬 (Korean-specific side dishes). So, along with a spread of side dishes, the two dig into a bubbling pot of 매운탕 (translates literally to “spicy stew”) which, in this case, features several different kinds of fish, crab, and other seafood.
Nari explains that, according to drinking etiquette in Korea, one should never drink alone. And, with that said, they cheers.
One of the meals that Bourdain eats that doesn’t get as much attention – in part because he’s eating alone – is a return trip to Gwangjang Market. He sits down at a food stall for the same dishes he ate last time: spicy rice cakes (떡), glass noodles (잡채), and blood sausage (순대).
As this is the only spot he visits during both episodes, it should definitely be on your list if you’re planning to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain in Korea.
Local Dining Experiences Tony Had in Korea
As usual, Bourdain also has a few local dining experiences during his trips to Korea:
- A Home-Cooked Meal with his Fixer – Deemed one of the best cooks in the family, Nari’s aunt prepares food “kings used to eat” for a final dinner during Tony’s first trip to Korea. Presented with lettuce and sesame leaf wraps with meats, rice, vegetables, kimchis, and other special sides – and, as always, paired with a side soup – around a traditional floor-sitting table. Tony shares that he is slowly but surely noticing his snarkiness, suspicion, and doubt disappear – a rare and meaningful thing brought on by his experience in Korea.
- Army Food Blogger Meetup – Convening in a makeshift army tent-lookalike, Tony meets with a comedic army food blogger to prepare some Korean army stew (부대찌개), a soup that typically includes kimchi, hot dogs, spam, ramen noodles, rice cakes, tofu, onion and/or pepper, and other various common ingredients, in a spicy broth. The recipe dates back to the Korean war when resources were tight and ingredients were limited to what was left over from US army rations. Tony is a big fan of the dish, and you can even find a Tony-perfected version of the recipe in his cookbook, Appetites. The two slurp their way through the stew on camera, showing off an earlier and, in my opinion, more attractive generation of mukbang.
Seoul/Korea Food Tours to Try
As usual, you might want to consider booking a food tour to sample some of the foods Tony did without having your own local fixer. Here are some good ones in Seoul that head to the same markets where Bourdain ate:
Have any questions about these places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Korea, or are you able to help name some of the places he ate? Let me know in the comments below!