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Seoul - South Korea

Seoul is a great place to experience a wide variety of spicy yet mouth-watering foods, especially the local cuisine with its distinctive tastes based on garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, red pepper powder and fermented soybean paste. Korean dishes, such as bibimpab (vegetables mixed with rice and hot pepper paste, topped with a cooked egg), kalbi (succulent beef ribs marinated in a special sauce, then char-broiled) and kimchi (Chinese cabbage or radish, salted and impregnated with various spices, including red hot pepper powder and pickled fish sauces), are becoming increasingly popular around the world.

Kimchi, in fact, is the country's staple, accompanying almost every meal. Most of the city's restaurants, whether high-priced or inexpensive, large or small, serve this popular condiment as a side dish. As many Koreans put it, "A meal without kimchi would be like trying to walk without legs." The existence of some 200 kinds of Kimchi shows how important it is to the local diet.

Healthy, nutritious and low in calories, Korean food is made up chiefly from a large selection of vegetables. You will probably be able to eat as much as you want without gaining weight. Traditionally, Korean meals are not served in courses. Instead, all of the dishes are placed on the table at the same time, the main dish almost always being accompanied by a bowl of rice, soup, kimchi and several side dishes. There is no set order in which the food should be eaten; it is entirely up to personal preference.

Dining out in Seoul can cost as little as KRW2,500 per person to as much as KRW80,000, and even more, for a full meal. For a good, inexpensive restaurant serving traditional Korean food, your best bet is Nolboojip, where you can enjoy a traditional Korean dinner in a country-style setting with traditional live music playing in the background. For just KRW10,000 per person, you can enjoy about 10 different side dishes, along with a bowl of rice and two types of soup. Many other smaller restaurants and department stores also serve great tasting traditional Korean meals at prices starting from KRW2,500 to KRW5,000. These restaurants are located all over the city and easy to find.

Hotel restaurants, on the other hand, tend to offer Western, Japanese and Chinese cuisine, as well as Korean, in a classy, aristocratic atmosphere. Prices here are higher, but the quality, taste and texture of the food is superb. In particular, the Hotel Shilla, the Ritz Carlton and the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill offer a wide selection of appetizing meals. Every so often, these hotels have special food fairs where they emphasize culinary delights from different countries, too.

Recently, a growing selection of international cuisine has become available in Seoul. From Vietnamese and Indian to Italian and British, there are almost too many varieties to name. Foreign-style food costs about two or three times as much as local Korean fare, but the quality and taste is often well worth it. For an excellent sampling, try Di Matteo, where authentic Italian pizza is prepared by Neapolitan chefs, or El Paso, where the Mexican grill serves "more Mex than Tex." Or for a cheaper alternative to international cuisine, stop by one of the city's many fast food restaurants, including McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway, to name a few. Koreans are beginning to take a liking to fried chicken, hamburgers and donuts. You will find the prices are relatively the same as in other countries, and the quality and taste is about equal, too.

When you are on the go, however, and have no time to sit and order a meal, the best places to satisfy your hunger pangs are the food stalls found on practically every street. Meals here are the cheapest, typically starting at KRW500 to KRW2,000. Try Korea's version of a hot dog (rather like a corn dog), or savor fish cakes, stir-fried rice cakes in red pepper paste, kimbap and chicken on skewers. Or to really get a taste of Korean culture, order the boiled silkworm pupae, bundaegi.

Koreans rarely drink anything but a little water or barley tea with their meals. However, when they do drink, they enjoy a wide variety of beverages, including beer, wine, whiskey, cocktails and other alcoholic beverages found around the world. There are traditional non-alcoholic drinks, such as a sweet rice drink called shikkye and a cinnamon and dried persimmon drink known as suejonggya. In addition, Korea has many of its own alcoholic drinks, such as makkoli and dong dong ju, made from sweet rice. The traditional alcohol of choice is referred to as soju. Just as vodka is important to Russians, so soju is to Koreans, especially the men. Drinking soju provides a way for Koreans to socialize and get to know others better. It has been said that once you have had a drink with someone, you are considered a friend.

The city's drinking establishments range from the "orange tents" (p'ochangmach'as) to upscale nightclubs. In between, there are bars, pubs (hofs), soju bangs and rock cafes. At an orange tent, you can purchase beer or soju and, instead of beer nuts, you can try a Korean main dish. Orange tents are popular among men and generally open from 11pm till the early morning dawn. It is important to note that a lot of overlapping occurs, so you can buy drinks at restaurants and can order food at most drinking establishments. You will also notice a lot of nicely decorated cafes and coffee shops around Seoul. Most of these places--such as Dasolbang, a place popular with university students--sell alcoholic beverages, too. Although the prices here are higher than you might expect to pay elsewhere, the atmosphere and mood compensate for the high costs. A cup of coffee will run from KRW2,500-KRW5,000.

In short, Seoul is a wonderful city for anyone on a journey to experience new tastes, so be willing to experiment and try some exotic foods.
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