The last time I was in Busan I was at the tail-end of a solo backpacking trip around Korea. I just just visited distant relatives in Ilsan and caught a cold toward the end of the my stay there. I was feeling pretty crappy but I wasn’t ready to go back to Seoul; Busan was the last stop on my itinerary and one of the places I was most excited about it, so I just soldiered on and got on the KTX. By the time I arrived I was so achey and groggy and exhausted that I just wanted to curl up and die.
I hadn’t even booked a hotel because I was 21 and living on the edge like that. As soon as I walked out of the train station, I saw a really dingy looking building with the words “Arirang Hotel” written in red and green neon signage on the front. The kind of shady station hotel that still has of its 70s decor and furnishings and caters to desperate, tired, non-discerning travellers, which was exactly me at that point. I was like… I don’t care what it looks like, I don’t care how much it costs, I just need a bed and I need it NOW. I walked in and I was pretty close to passing out, so all I could get out (in Korean) was “Do you have a room?” The receptionist looked a little surprised, probably because this was the kind of question they probably only got from nervous criminal fugitives and sleazy guys who walked in drunk with a girl on each arm. Luckily, they had a room for me and I just crashed. I didn’t feel that much better the next day so all I did was take a taxi to the beach and sit there for a little while, trying to enjoy the ocean.
That is my memory of Busan. The Arirang Hotel and twenty minutes sitting on Haeundae beach. But despite how sick I was, how short the visit was, or how little I did and saw, it’s a very fond memory. And since coming to Korea, going back to Busan has been on the top of my list.
It took us a while, but at the end of a long, exhausting, tough year Matt and I decided to treat ourselves and planned a super last minute trip to Busan over new years. It was winter – not the best time to visit – but I was more interested in the food than the beach so I didn’t mind.
When we arrived at Busan station I REALLY hoped to see my old friend the Arirang Hotel but sadly he was no where to be found. It was 2007 when I was there last, and 7 years is a long time in Korea. I guess there’s no place for an ugly, unfashionable hotel at the door of a modern, up and coming city like Busan. Shame.
We booked a hotel in Haeundae, which is the trendy part of town – home to Haeundae beach and also the biggest department store IN THE WORLD. As soon as we walked out of the hotel in the morning, I had one of those rare “Are we still in Korea?” moments. It was like t-shirt weather warm… in the middle of winter! The air seemed clearer and the sky was the kind of clear blue you only see when you’re close to the ocean. The area actually reminded me a little of Sydney or even the Gold Coast – all beachside hotels and chill atmosphere. And “chill” is not a word I have used a lot since moving to Seoul. Seoul is anything but chill. I expected Busan to be much the same, it is the second largest city in Korea, but the vibe is totally different. It took me all of 10 minutes to decide, “LET’S MOVE TO BUSAN!” … and I hadn’t even eaten anything yet!
We grabbed a taxi to have lunch at place I found on Naver called Suminineh that is famous for its grilled shellfish (Jogae-gui). We told the taxi driver the name of the restaurant and he was familiar with it so I was thinking, good choice. If it’s famous enough for the taxi driver to know it by name, it must be good. When we were almost there, he asked us, “Are you sure you want to go to Suminineh? It used to be good but since it started getting more popular the quality of the food has gone down. There’s another place right by the water that’s much better, and you can eat with a view of the ocean.” After recovering from the initial shock of having a taxi driver who was both well-informed AND helpful (non-existent in Seoul), we were like “Just take us to the yummiest place!”
So he took us to Hajinineh right by the water.
It’s set up like a makeshift tent, complete with plastic chairs, foldable tables, and gravel floor. Love it. Because you know, the shabbier the decor, the yummier the food.
Our taxi driver wasn’t lying about the view. The restaurant creates the illusion of a casual beachside barbecue.
And to top it all off, they have more framed celebrity signatures than they have wall space for!
The barbecue is old-school and uses a coal briquette (yeontan) for heat. This is what people used to use to heat their homes before electric and gas heating became widely available. Some OG Korean BBQ right here.
We couldn’t decide between shellfish and eel so we ordered both. Enough food for four people but who cares coz we’re in Busan and we’re not here to play games!!
First the shellfish. Those little white cubes are butter, not cream cheese. We learnt that the hard way.
So the Korean word used for this dish is just the generic word for shellfish, but I now realise that this isn’t some low-class poor man’s shellfish. Not in Busan anyway. By shellfish, they mainly mean scallops. Regular scallops and a couple of GIANT pen shell scallops that I didn’t even know existed before this meal.
DANG gurl. It’s like a scallop and a mussel had an oversized mutant baby.
So at first, you let the molluscs cook directly above the fire. Once they’re cooked enough to scrape out of their shells, you put everything (including the butter, the diced onion, chopped chilli, and enoki mushrooms) into the foil plate and let it sizzle down into a buttery shellfish stew.
You can imagine how good this tastes right? The broth turns into this amazing seafood bisque that infuses the strong flavour of the shellfish, as well as heat from the chilis and creaminess of the butter. It’s basically scallop-flavoured butter soup. Neither Matt nor I are huge fans of seafood but we were losing our minds over this. Best thing we’ve both eaten in Korea. I repeat, best thing we’ve eaten in Korea. This is worth traveling for. From Seoul, or from whatever place in the world you may be reading this. You need to add “Busan grilled shellfish” to your bucket list.
And that wasn’t even the end of the meal!
Our second course: a big plate of fresh eel. Grilled eel is another Busan favorite and Matt and I both huge fans of eel so we were pretty excited about this.
I think eel is something you need some experience cooking if you want to get it right. We ended up burning a lot of pieces and didn’t even know what to do with the bony spine bits that they gave us.
If, like us, you like your eel juicy and marinated, you can chuck it all in another foil plate and pour the chili sauce over it. It was really good, but overshadowed by the shellfish. I think we’d prefer our eel to be grilled and marinated by an expert Japanese chef.
Both plates were 25,000 won each, which is super reasonable for fresh seafood. Everyone around us ordered ramyun to end their meals but we held back because we were so full…. and later regretted it. Should have just gone for the ramyun dammit!
The restaurant (and many like it) is in a small fishing village on the edge of Busan called Cheongsapo. It was stunning. More blue than I had seen in a year and barely any high-rises in sight.
I don’t understand how this place is not one of the top destinations in Korea – even Busan locals aren’t very familiar with it. I could have stayed there forever.
Another thing Busan is famous for is its pork souprice (dwaeji gukbap). The concept of souprice is pretty unique to Korea I believe… I don’t know of any other food cultures that enjoy to dunk their entire bowl of rice into their soup as much as we do. I think it must be the legacy of post-war food scarcity… and then we just never stopped loving it because, generation after generation, it would always remind us of our mother’s cooking. It’s the ultimate comfort food.
There are plenty of famous places to eat pork souprice in Busan, but our friends took us to their favourite local place. Right by Gwangali bridge, it’s called Soobyun Chaego Gukbap (Waterfront BEST Souprice).
The menu had some more souped-up (ho ho ho…. wait, have I made that joke before? I hope not) choices, like pork with offal, or pork with blood pudding, but we all went for the classic pork only.
The soup is a milky pork bone broth, with fatty pieces of pieces of pork scattered through it. The more specific seasoning of the soup will differ from restaurant to restaurant, and you can also modify it to your own taste with chili flakes, salted shrimp, and chopped chives. I luurrrvvee dem chives.
It might seem strange that the most famous ‘signature’ dish of this city is something as simple as pork soup, but once you eat it, you understand. Whatever secret seasoning they use in the broth, the flavour hits your umami taste buds right in their sweet spot. Even as you empty your bowl and the rice expands to fill your stomach beyond capacity, you end up scraping the bottom of the bowl like a desperate soup junkie. That reminds me that I NEED to find a good pook souprice place in Seoul because there is NO WAY I’m waiting until the next trip down to Busan to eat this again. It’s too good.
So, grilled clams and eel – tick! Pork souprice – tick! Not even halfway through my to-eat list… and then I get the worst food poisoning of MY LIFE. I’m not sure whether it actually was something I ate or this horrific “norovirus” that goes around every winter in Korea, but I was up all night on the toilet, and had stomach cramps so bad that I genuinely thought I was going to die. I didn’t start feeling better until I projectile vomited in the hotel shower the next morning.
No I don’t have any hard feelings agains the scallops, the eel, or the pork. If anything, it would have been the late night (non-blogworthy) fried chicken that I ate. But yes, I got sick and the rest of the trip was a write-off. I had planned to visit the seafood markets and have some of Busan’s famous street food, but that will have to wait until the next time I visit. Which I hope will be soon because man, I really fell in love with Busan. It has all the good things that Seoul has (food, shopping, entertainment, nightlife, convenience, public transport, history, mountains) but also manages to avoid a lot of the crappy things that Seoul has (overcrowded everything, rude, uptight, inconsiderate people, incompetent taxi drivers, expensive rent, bad air, proximity to North Korea, freezing winter weather). And on top of all that, it has beaches AND THE OCEAN.
Seriously, let’s just all move to Busan and eat shellfish and eels and pork souprice happily ever after.