Visiting different cities throughout Korea is kind of like time-travel. You always start in Seoul, which represents present day (or even the future, if you’re from a small town like Sydney, Australia) and then depending on which city you choose, you can travel 5, 10, 20, 30 years back in time simply by catching a train.
Korea has a unique story in that it went from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest within the span of 50 years. Seoul is the city that leads the charge in terms of wealth, innovation, development and westernisation, while the other cities play catch up, some faster than others. I hear that Busan is not far behind Seoul, but other cities seem to be in much less of a hurry to build a Starbucks at every corner and replace clear sky with high-rise apartments. They are happy to live a simpler life drinking instant coffee, residing in humble brick villas that are only a few floors off the ground.
Gwangju is one of those cities. I went there to visit a friend, and as soon as my bus drove into the bus terminal, I was surprised to feel something a lot like culture shock. It seems ridiculous to experience culture shock simply by traveling from one city to another in such a small country, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It looked and felt like Seoul 20 years ago, the one I visited when I was a kid in the 90s. And it dawned on me that even after only living there for a few months now:
I had become an elitist Seoulite.
I was now in a city where people actually stared at me with wonder because I spoke English, and I felt a little bit uncomfortable. But you know the best way to break the ice with an unfamiliar city? With food. Yes. It only takes one meal to change your attitude from “I don’t know how I feel about this place” to “I could live here forever”.
My friend saw the discomfort in my face and, because she knows me well, quickly took me to her favorite restaurant (even though it was late in the evening and we’d both already eaten dinner).
When working in a Korean company, it is the norm to go out to dinner and drinks after work with colleagues almost every day. You get very familiar with “late night food” like fried chicken and jokbal (족발 = pig’s trotter). Jokbal is usually served seasoned and steamed with some dipping sauces, but this place marinates their jokbal in a really rich spicy sauce. It is her late-night guilty pleasure.
The next day, we took a thirty minute bus ride to Damyang (담양), a country town that is famous for its bamboo forest. This was like travelling another 10 years into the past. Was walked down a long, dusty road of shops and restaurants, which all looked like tiny family-owned businesses – no sign of the urbanisation and Samsung-isation that is everywhere in Seoul. I’m ashamed to admit that I started to think, “What good could come from this godforsaken town?”
We turned a corner and then all of a sudden we met this long, leafy stretch of pure picnic.
It is the famous “Damyang Noodle Street” (담양국수거리) – one side is lined with restaurants and the other side is lined with trees and bamboo mats for sitting, eating and chillaxing.
I was so excited about eating noodles on a bamboo mat under the sunshine that we ordered WAY too much food.
The noodles were simple – the first one served cold, in a refreshing, spicy sauce, and the second served hot in a dried-anchovy based broth. They also sold eggs boiled in chinese medicial herbs (한방약계란 – I love that I live in a country where you can buy boiled eggs at a restaurant) and a really yummy pajeon (favourite of all non-korean korean food lovers).
And so cheap! Only 4,000won ($4) for the noodles, 1,000won ($1) for three eggs and 5,000won ($5) for the pajeon. That’s the great thing about the sticks - food that is twice as good as the food in Seoul, but half the price.
Sigh, is there anything better than eating noodles and boiled eggs outdoors with your bestie? No, I don’t think there is.
My friend works at the Biennale Association, so she is totally “in” with the Gwanju arts scene. She took me to a beautiful gallery cafe called Dae Dam (대담), which was on the other side of a little creek flowing parallel to the Noodle Street.
This stylish, contemporary cafe and arts center seemed a bit out of place in such a sleepy country town, but I think a lot of artists find their refuge in places like this. Seoul is great, but it’s the kind of place that suffocates creativity.
We had a beautiful traditional bingsoo (빙수) which is shaved ice, some condensed milk topped with misugaru (미숫가루, mixed grain powder) and a glossy heap of red-bean. It also came with a view toppings on the side: mochi, shaved almonds and cereal.
I have learnt that you can judge the quality of red bean by its shininess. This is the good stuff.
The cafe is a blend of modern and rustic, and overlooks a very pretty garden and outdoor garden area. They have a woodfire oven for pizza, but we were too stuffed on noodles to give that try.
The best thing about this place is that next to the cafe, there is a room where you can have PLASTER FUN TIME! It’s meant to be for kiddies, but you can’t deny adults the pleasure of plaster fun! We chose small ceramic plates and painted them very seriously. I took inspiration from the Noodle Street and painted a masterpiece that looks like it should be displayed in a bus-station souvenir shop.
My much more elegant friend painted some juicy Korean grapes.
Afterwards, we visited the famous bamboo forest. This is Damyang’s ONE AND ONLY claim to fame so, naturally, the city takes a lot of pride in it. Everything in Damyang is bamboo-themed, the restaurants, the cafes, the shops and gift stores. You’ll even find giant panda sculptures - though there aren’t any actual panda’s in Damyang. Their image is just used for its association with bamboo.
I was more concerned with the heat (Korean summer is the worst) and what we’d be eating next, so I sadly don’t have any photos of the bamboo. If you’re interested in the bamboo forest, you can just Google “Damyang” and an entire gallery of tall green stalks will come up.
My friend took me to a restaurant just outside the forest that does Han Jung Sik (한정식) which is a traditional Korean banquet table. In other words, a table filled with simple side-dishes (banchan) , a main course, a soup and rice.
Of course, in Damyang, the rice is steamed in bamboo stem.
With the huge variety of side dishes, the table looks really impressive. Out of the fifteen or so side dishes, however, around 10 were made from bamboo shoots. What does bamboo taste like? It tastes like a twig that has been soaked and softened. Woody, stringy, earthy, bland and tough… none of these are enjoyable flavours or textures.There’s a good reason why bamboo is the food of choice for pandas, NOT humans.
They’re alright when they’re thinly sliced, canned and then soaked in a Thai curry… but as a kimchi, battered and deep fried, boiled and covered in chilli sauce. . . no thank you. It’s admirable that the restaurant takes so much pride in the town’s main attraction that it tried to turn it into a cuisine . . . but I don’t think bamboo’s destiny is on the dining table. It belongs in garden chairs, in picnic mats and in the hands of hungry pandas. The Ddeokgalbi (떡갈비) main course was nice, but we left most of the other side dishes untouched.
The next day we were back in Gwangju and my friend took me to her workplace, the Biennale Museum. But we weren’t there to see art, we were there to eat.
There’s a popular cafe on the museum grounds called “Dadam” (“다담”, not to be confused with “Daedam”)
The interior is really lovely blend of new and old. Its wooden tables, lattice artwork and paper lantern light fixtures are a really sophisticated throwback to traditional Korean art and design.
In the spirit of pigging out like there’s no tomorrow, we ordered one “to share” dessert each.
This deluxe bingsoo came with black sesame ice cream, mochi and crushed nuts, with a side of handmade ddeok (떡, glutinous rice cake).
We also got a giant swirl of delicious cranberry soft serve. The presentation here is beautiful – that is a real leaf under the rice cake and a real single flower in that tiny little ceramic vase.
We ate a lot this weekend. We actually ate a lot more than is shown above… including DIY wine and cheese platter, late night ramyun and buffet lunch on the day I went back to Seoul…. but I have too much shame to post those up in detail.
Gwangju and Damyang are not the most glamorous travel destinations in Korea, but if you’re here for a while and have a weekend to spare, I definitely recommend a visit – especially the Damyang Noodle Street! That was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in Korea so far - the setting is so unique and actually quite romantic. It’s only a 3.5 hour time machine ride away from Seoul :)