I knew my last meal in Korea had to be good; but what? Barbecue? One of the many soups I’d savored over my year-and-a-half stay? A rice dish? Seafood? I couldn’t decide. But lucky for me, I didn’t have to.
As a going away present, my friend Yong Kyu made reservations at a Korean royal cuisine restaurant so I could check off one of the last items from my Korean food bucket list: sinseollo. Sinseollo is a special type of hot pot once reserved only for royalty. It’s basically a mild broth with beef, egg, radish, mushrooms, walnuts, ginkgo nuts and a few other vegetables served in a fancy silver pot.
I hadn’t had time to research royal cuisine, with my grueling 3-month trip around Southeast Asia and all, so I had no idea what to expect. I figured the hot pot would be placed in the center of the table and that would be it.
Boy was I wrong.
Our server greeted us with salad, cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables, spring rolls and sweet potato salad. Then came beautifully presented sashimi. Then juk (rice porridge). Then boiled pork with spicy radish, nokdumuk (mung bean jelly noodles) and a delicious ground beef dish. Then the waitress brought out a nine-sectioned platter consisting of colorful vegetables and meats. She used chopsticks to put a little of each into thin wheat pancakes, rolled them up and placed them on our plates.
I looked at Yong Kyu. “This has to be it, right?”
“Of course not,” he replied. “We haven’t had the sinseollo yet.”
As if cued, our waitress placed a huge bronze pot of soup accompanied with jeonyueo (meat and vegetables dipped in flour and egg then pan-fried) on our table. Yong Kyu spooned heaps of sinseollo into my bowl.
“Yong Kyu, this is so delicious, but I can’t eat another bite,” I said, holding my stomach.
“This meal is finished, I think,” he said. “Now just dessert.”
But it wasn’t. There was still doenjang jjigae (fermented soy bean soup) and banchan (side dishes) to be had. I sat in slight agony as I watched Yong Kyu sip his soup and dip his chopsticks into the small bowls of kimchi, beans and vegetables. “Please, have some,” he said.
“I’m just saving room for dessert,” I replied, hoping that was the last course.
I was relieved when our server came to clear our plates. And I was even more relieved when dessert turned out to be two pieces of tteok (rice cake) and pineapple.
It was a lot of food. But good food. Actually, it was some of the best food I’d had during my stay in Korea.
“Yong Kyu, thank you so much for taking me here,” I said. “This was the perfect present. A meal to end all meals.”
He blushed and rushed ahead to open the door. I waddled out of the royal cuisine restaurant feeling like a princess. A fat princess, but a princess non-the-less.
For a comprehensive list of Korean royal cuisine restaurants in Seoul, visit: http://seoulistic.com/korean-food/10-hanok-restaurants-in-korea-that-serve-traditional-korean-cuisine-hanjeongsik/