Savoring Itaewon’s Rich Mix

After decades of being labeled a seedy playground, Seoul’s colorful Itaewon neighborhood has parlayed its multicultural mix into becoming the city’s most cosmopolitan restaurant scene.

The sidewalks around Itaewon Station are embedded with brass plaques. Each depicts a country, its flag and how to say “hello” in the respective language. In Seoul’s multicultural hamlet of Itaewon, such information is actually useful.

To celebrate their unique cultural mosaic, every autumn local officials and merchants host the Itaewon Global Village Festival. In-costume, the festival’s participants resemble an exaggerated version of daily life in Itaewon, a Seoul neighborhood that’s been synonymous with “foreign” for decades, if not centuries. In fact, some etymologists think the word “Itaewon” alludes to foreign soldiers who stayed behind after a failed 16th century invasion.

Today’s invaders, however, come armed with foreign flavors. Itaewon is probably the only neighborhood in the city where a few meters could separate a Turkish restaurant, an Irish pub and Comedor, a boisterous hole-in-the-wall serving Paraguayan empanadas.

In recent years, these culinary odd couples (and threesomes) have made Itaewon the destination for local foodies. And yet, this wasn’t always the case. When Canadian Wayne Gold arrived in 1997, the neighborhood’s foreign options were a Western grill, a Thai restaurant and a few bad Italian eateries. What’s more, the neighborhood was better known for vice than vittles.

By the mid-2000s, however, the scene was already changing. In 2006, Gold and three friends opened an Irish pub, the Wolfhound. Around the same time, the stretch of asphalt behind the Hamilton Hotel was showing early signs of what was to come.

Today, the alley is anchored by delicious destinations like Zelen, Korea’s only Bulgarian eatery. Customers of the green-themed restaurant can enjoy delectable pulneni chushki, baked peppers stuffed with rice and minced meat and topped with yoghurt and fresh dill. This being eclectic Itaewon, you can wash it down with Mukuzani wine from Georgia or a Jagerbomb.

 

One block west, OKitchen cooks up impeccable fusion fare, like basil pesto orecchiette with ingredients grown on the Korean-Japanese owners’ Mount Dobongsan farm.

Joe McPherson, founding editor of the ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal, calls Itaewon an “incubator” for ethnic restaurants and the neighborhood where restaurateurs test new ingredients in Korea. He names Spanish tapas, Brazilian churrascaria and homebrewed beer as the fickle scene’s latest trends.

Just like the menus, Itaewon’s clientele is changing. With the neighborhood’s dark past behind it, a generation of globally-minded Koreans now outnumber foreigners  at many establishments. On a recent Sunday evening, 22-year-old Lee Uik-won was among them. A student who has traveled and lived overseas, he enjoys Itaewon’s unique mix. He explains, “You can make foreign friends and eat various countries’ foods. It feels exotic.”

This past spring, a similar sentiment was echoed by the hit single, Itaewon Freedom by the duo UV and producer Park Jin-young. Spread virally over social media, the video’s silly retro motif featured Koreans with fake Afros singing about “a new world” where “everyone meets in Itaewon.”

While some lament Itaewon’s gentrification, Wolfhound’s owner Gold welcomes the richer mix. Koreans now comprise about 60% of his weekday patrons, and he says the pub’s tightly packed tables encourage socialization. In short order, he says, “people talk and interact and everyone has a good time.”

As Korea’s foreign population now exceeds 1 million, the country has entered its multicultural era. And, at least in Itaewon, breaking bread has proven to be the best way to break down cultural barriers.

 

Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, December 2011

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