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South Korea Doesn’t Do Breakfast

The morning waft of kimchi is like a punch to the face.

Breakfast time in South Korea (All photos by the author)

When you grow up in England, breakfast is an event. Not in the, “Let’s do breakfast!” way that I imagine West Coast movie types emptily holler at one another across busy studio lots, but as a deep-rooted part of our cultural makeup. Take, for example, the "full English", a centuries-old national obsession with a symbolic breakfast table buckling under mounds of bacon, sausage and fried eggs. It’s the reason I’ve become so embroiled with the London Review of Breakfasts.


Over the years, I’ve devilled kidneys, stuffed my own sausages, made laverbread and even forged black pudding from congealing pots of pig’s blood, all in an effort to redefine the breakfast foods that make the English breakfast identity such a specific event. But travelling around the world has put this obsession even further under the spotlight for me; other people don’t do it the way us Brits do. You can wake up in any foreign town and wander sleepily down the stairs of your hotel, only to find that breakfast means a coffee and a cigarette or, even worse, some underloved pastries or reheated powdered eggs; northern Albania is in the Jim Jarmusch camp, and Equatorial Guinea is big on the lukewarm fishcakes. But those places were nothing compared to the shock of realising that breakfast doesn't exist as a concept in South Korea.

After some 12 hours on a plane from London last spring, I arrived in South Korea to meet my future mother-in-law for the first time. Cue some cultural misunderstandings, lots of smiling and a hearty Korean feast of rice in hot stone bowls, doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean soup), godeungeo gui (grilled mackerel), kimchi and a mind-boggling number of namul (vegetable side dishes).

I quickly learned that Korean food has some powerful flavours at its core. Kimchi – Korea’s trademark spicy pickled cabbage condiment, eaten with every meal – has such a pervasive smell that many people have an entirely separate refrigerator just for kimchi alone. Opening a pot of the fermented vegetable is more like enduring a punch in the face than wafting a gentle bouquet of aroma.


A bowl of kimchi

The next morning, kicked in the head with jet lag, I got a knock at my door, signalling that it was time to get up and eat what I assumed was breakfast. I walked downstairs to an eerie scene of déjà vu: a set of dishes was laid out on the breakfast table in an almost identical format to those that we ate for dinner.

That first breakfast bite of kimchi made for a wild shock to my system. And so it went on: rice, soup, pickles, a steaming bowl of guksu noodles and beansprout soup. It wasn’t really clear what was or wasn’t permitted on the Korean breakfast table, or whether it was any different than dinner around here.

I did some digging and learned about Korea’s food customs – especially its breakfast routine, which dates as far back as the the 14th century, when the king and queen of the Joseon dynasty ate two large, almost identical, meals known as sura, every day at 10AM and 5PM. There are records of an ox blood and vegetable soup called haejangguk – eaten now as a hangover cure – that noblemen consumed at the first bell of each day.

I began to wonder whether this was part of a global process, that as societies have evolved and become more economically equitable, the flamboyant traditions of the upper classes – like extravagant meals in the morning – became adopted in some way by the growing middle classes. Just like the popular English plate of bacon and eggs is a descendant from the opulent breakfast menus of the Victorian country houses, perhaps the morning eating traditions of the ancient Korean nobility came to define this country’s modern culinary traditions.


Ladies making kimbap

Surely in the 21st century, if people could make a living selling pickled, fermented cabbage and oxblood soups at ungodly hours in the morning, then this must be the true face of Korean breakfast. I decided to head out in the morning to a greasy-spoon restaurant, or what we’d consider an open-all-hours breakfast joint: a small kimbap shop, which was already full of businessmen and school kids.

“Kimbap” literally means seaweed and rice, and it’s the twin brother of the sushi roll, except that none of the ingredients are raw fish. Typically, there’ll be some ham, egg, pickled radish, cooked spinach and a bit of processed fish cake, all rolled in the seaweed with freshly cooked rice and brushed with some sesame oil. It’s then served with some more kimchi and a few crisp slices of yellow pickled radish. These places are usually open 24 hours, which means kimbap is fine for breakfast. Although you needn’t limit yourself; there are also hot spicy broths made from kimchi and soft tofu, sundubu jjigae, or doenjang (Korean miso), as well as tteokguk, a soup laden with chewy Korean rice cakes.

Hadongkwan is a two-storey wood fronted restaurant in the busy shopping district of Myeongdong, where they’ve been serving one dish, a clear beef stew called gomtang, for more than 70 years. Even in the mornings, the lines are vast. Korean oxtail is boiled and boiled, and the resulting clear broth is served in brass bowls with cooked rice on the bottom and thin slices of brisket and tripe piled on top. You garnish with liberal handfuls of chopped spring onions and salt, and then throw it back with kkakdugi kimchi (made of diced radish rather than cabbage) on the side. It’s a bit like a Vietnamese pho, but without the fragrant herbs – the warm taste of beef fat lingering for the rest of the day.


Across town, in Korea’s oldest traditional market, the eateries are slammed with people in the morning. Among the tightly packed aisles of fabrics, more than 100 food stalls are arranged like spokes on a bicycle wheel, each with a different flavour. Down one, it’s all bindaetteok, which are stone-ground mung bean pancakes the size of a dinner plate and about a centimetre thick; they’re crispy, garlicky and served with a spicy dipping sauce.

Down another aisle, each stall is festooned with limpid curls of sundae, a thick blood sausage stuffed with noodles, and pools of bright red chilli sauce studded with chewy rice cakes – the schoolboy favourite, tteokbokki. There are piles of pigs' feet and ears, liver and lungs, ready to be sliced up and served with salt, towers of mini kimbap and bowls of steaming guksu, handmade wheat noodles in a fishy soup with kimchi-filled dumplings.

The more I ate, the more I realised that, as long as you can buy it in the morning – be it beef stew, rice cakes, blood sausage or noodle soup – in Korea, you can call it breakfast. On my last day in town, I stumbled across the one fusion street food that would fit an English view of breakfast. Tost-u is the Korean version of all those Western egg-plus-bread morning staples.

On a mobile hotplate, an egg is scrambled with bits of carrot, then wrapped in a slice of fried bread with some brown sugar and ketchup. It had a certain peculiar breakfast appeal, but after two weeks of nonstop eating, it paled in comparison to the wealth of other, pungent, spicy, gutsy food that you can consume in South Korean daybreak, the land where breakfast is more a time of day than a specific type of cuisine.

Peter Meanwell is the co-author of The Breakfast Bible