The tearoom on the ground floor is run by a local food historian, who makes and sells dozens of gaily coloured rice cakes, alongside different teas served in dinky glass pots. We sip plum flower tea, which we're told is good for our immune system, and nibble on an array of the chewy, gluey cakes, served by waitresses who swish about in long traditional dress.
To walk off the day's eating we nose around Samchongdong, the most appealing district in this skyscraper-dominated city. With its traditional hanok houses perched high on the hillside, and its narrow alleys hiding chic restaurants and cutting-edge design shops, this area offers plenty of atmosphere and is a pleasant place to hang out before our next meal — with a monk.
Jungsan Kim Yun-Sik is the Dean of Temple Food Culture at the Dongsen Buddhist University. A monk since 1961, Yun-Sik runs Sanchon, a temple food restaurant in the heart of the lively Insadong district, with its arts and crafts shops and busy street food stalls. Temple food is intriguing vegetarian cooking, with its foraged, wild dishes devoid of the ever-popular chillies, which, according to the monks, can over-excite.
Ordinarily you would find this kind of food in Buddhist temples (where you can eat it for free) but you need to sing, or rather pray, for your supper. On this occasion we opt for Sanchon, where the acorn jelly with deep-fried seaweed is surprisingly good. Pumpkin is steamed and served with roasted sesame, but particularly delicious is the buckwheat pancake (bookgumi) stuffed with cinnamon-laced potato, and thick slices of fresh tofu.
Incredibly, we still find room for a few street snacks on the way back to our hotel. Some of Korea's best food can be found in the makeshift restaurants crammed onto pavements or squeezed down narrow alleys, serving dishes such as seolleongtang (ox bone soup) or chicken feet and roasted pig intestines. We content ourselves with tame sweet potato fries and roasted chestnuts.
We crank things up a few notches the following day at Woorega, which overlooks leafy Dosan Park in the city's smart Shinsadong district, where limos line the streets and art galleries are around every corner. 'I want to show you that South Korean cooking can be beautiful, too,' explains Joo.
Chef-owner An Jung Hyun approaches food with an artist's eye. 'The plate is like a canvas,' she tells us. In fact she used to be an artist and flower-arranger, before turning her talents to cooking and opening her restaurant five years ago.
The dishes are stunning, presented on statement tableware, garnished with sprigs of pine, orchid stems and rose petals. It's traditional Korean cooking with a twist and highlights include
so gogi chap sal gui (crispy beef with chives), and wheat pancakes (milssam), stuffed with a julienne of vegetables, mustard sauce and crushed pine nuts — and kimchi, of course. Always kimchi.
The kimchi festival opens the following day and we need to get to Gwangju, four hours drive southwest of Seoul in the Jeolla-do region. This is South Korea's food capital, surrounded by paddy fields, edged by towering bamboo forests, hillsides dotted with ginseng farms, and fields crowded with polytunnels, growing the nation's vegetables during the cold winter months.