Welcome to the Republic of SEOUL

Part I

(November 2017)

(*)  Koreans outside Seoul call it "The Republic of Seoul", as it is a world of its own, different than the rest of the country.

Prologue

Gingko tree, could be the symbol of the city.

Gingko tree, could be the symbol of the city.

The moment you set your foot in Seoul you fall in love with it.  It is a love at first sight, but I am sure a love to last for a lifetime.

High skyscrapers among low traditional buildings, modern department stores and huge traditional markets, wide avenues and small alleys lined up with gingko trees, gentle people, huge tranquil parks covered in red maple trees, royal palaces and shrines, canals and little lakes, old city walls and magnificent gates, well trailed hills in the center of the city and mountains surrounding the city covered with lavish multicolored vegetation, upscale restaurants and an abundance of street food, numerous cafes and teashops.  A city full of surprises but so familiar at the same time. 

Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Seoul.

Arrival in Seoul

Five hours from Athens to Doha and then another nine hours from Doha to Seoul.  That is a long journey, but I did not even realize how easy time passed as I was thrilled to visit Seoul.  Seoul has been for long in my basket list, but for some reasons the trip has been cancelled in the past. 

Here I am:  on bus No 6001 from Incheon Airport to Acube Hotel in Dongdaemun area.  Bus No 6001 takes (mainly) tourists to the city as it stops to several hotels downtown.  The trip takes an hour or a bit more as there is always traffic.  The ticket costs 14,000 if you buy it before boarding (there are vending machines at the bus stop, which accept credit cards and cash), or 15,000 if you buy it from the bus driver.

Note: a taxi ride to the center of Seoul costs about 60,000 flat rate. 

Airport-bus stop in downtown Seoul

Airport-bus stop in downtown Seoul

notes

👍 All 60xx buses are airport buses. Check which one is the right bus to take you as close as possible to your hotel. Check also the stop from which you will take the bus back to the airport, when that sad moment arrives!  Check also the time of the last bus to the airport, as it is may be early (around 20:00 usually)

👍 The currency of South Korea is the won (₩). A single won is divided into 100 jeon.  

Moving around

Eventhough, Seoul, at first glance, seems chaotic and the traffic is heavy, it has a very efficient public transportation system. 

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway (metro) takes you literally everywhere in the city (it has 21 lines) and beyond. 

One can buy single tickets, but the most convenient way is to issue a multiple-trip card (called T-card), which costs 3,000.  To be able to use the card, one must load it with the appropriate amount to cover his transportation needs.  T-card can be used in all means of public transportation.   

T-Card (reusable transportation card)

T-Card (reusable transportation card)

T-cards are sold in every metro station from automatic vending machines (in English) with cash only.  Again, you need cash to load the card.  You can reload the card with more money at any time.

Note: Touch the card every time you enter and exit the gates of the metro, and the amount (starting from) of 1,250 will be deducted.

Ticket vending and Card reload Device (left) and T-Card vending machine and charger (right).

Ticket vending and Card reload Device (left) and T-Card vending machine and charger (right).

Metro electronic bars (Entrance-Exit).

Metro electronic bars (Entrance-Exit).

The use of Metro is pretty straightforward, but taking the bus in countries where they use other characters (language) than the one you are familiar with or in a country where you do not speak the language in general, the best way is to use one of the many smartphone applications.

I use Moovit App for android (free) and I am very happy with it.  I managed to find my way in Seoul very easily on the bus.  The only drawback of the application is that you need to go online to have your information. 

Bus stop showing arrival times

Bus stop showing arrival times

If you do not want to use your expensive roaming data, use free Wi-Fi networks when available and plan your trip in advance.  There are plenty free Wi-Fi spots around Seoul.

Note: If you use a T-card, touch it (on the special machines on board) every time you enter and exit the bus.  The amount (starting from) of 1,200 will be deducted when you exit If you forget to touch the card at the exit, the double amount will be charged to your card next time you enter the bus. You can also use the special box at the front entrance of the bus to put in the exact amount of the fair, which in this case is 1,300.

Maps.me App.

Maps.me App.

Note: Electronic maps

You certainly need an electronic map App (GPS maps) for your tablet or mobile phone to be able to move around in Seoul in the most efficient way.

Google maps does not work properly (it is just a picture, with no live connections, etc) in South Korea and the maps are of low resolution, so it is not useful at all!  Besides you need to be online and use your mobile data.

Kakao maps is for Korea, what is Google maps for the rest of the world.  But everything is in Korean (!), and again you need to use your mobile data.

My experience of all these years I travel, has shown that the most useful of all mobile applications for maps is the "Maps.me".  It is free, reasonable good, and the maps work offline.  You just have to download the area maps (you are interested to) when there is a wi-fi available and then you can use them offline.

KOREA: a little bit of history

Korea is located in East Asia, divided since 1945  into two distinct sovereign states: North Korea and South Korea.  Korea has land borders with China and Russia, and sea borders with Japan.

Korea emerged as a singular political entity in 676 AD after centuries of conflict among the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which were unified as Silla to the south and Balhae to the north. Silla divided into three separate states. Goryeo, defeated the two other states. Around the same time, Balhae collapsed and its last crown prince fled south to Goryeo.  Goryeo, whose name developed into the modern exonym "Korea", was a highly cultured state that created the world's first metal movable type in 1234.  However, multiple invasions by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty during the 13th century, resulted Goryeo to become a vassal state. Following the Yuan Dynasty's collapse,  Goryeo eventually fell to a coup led by General Yi Seong-gye, who established Joseon Dynasty in 1392, which lasted till 1910.

Map of KOREA.

Map of KOREA.

The first 200 years of Joseon were marked by relative peace. During this period, the Korean alphabet was created by Sejong the Great in the 15th century and there was increasing influence of Confucianism. During the latter part of the dynasty, Korea's isolationist policy earned it the Western nickname of the "Hermit Kingdom". By the late 19th century, the country became the object of imperial design by the Empire of Japan. After the First Sino-Japanese War Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and ruled by Imperial Japan until the end of World War II in August 1945.

In 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed on the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea in the aftermath of World War II, leaving Korea partitioned along the 38th parallel. The North was under Soviet occupation and the South under US occupation. These circumstances soon became the basis for the division of Korea by the two superpowers, exacerbated by their incapability to agree on the terms of Korean independence. The Communist-inspired government in the North received backing from the Soviet Union in opposition to the pro-Western government in the South, leading to Korea's division into two political entities. Tensions between the two resulted in the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. With involvement by foreign troops, the war ended in a stalemate in 1953, but without a formalized peace treaty. This status contributes to the high tensions that continue to divide the peninsula. To date, the two countries refuse to recognize the other as legitimate.

SEOUL - Orientation

Seoul is the capital and largest metropolis of South Korea. Seoul is the world's 16th largest city, and forms the heart of the Seoul Capital Area, which includes the surrounding Incheon metropolis and Gyeonggi province. The Seoul Capital Area houses about half of the country's population of 52 million people.


A map of Seoul and its Port Incheon.

A map of Seoul and its Port Incheon.

Strategically situated on the Han River, Seoul's history stretches back more than two thousand years when it was founded in 18 BC by the people of Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Later it became the capital of Korea under the Joseon Dynasty.  Seoul is surrounded by mountains.  Three of them are the most important ones:  Mt. Bukhan in the north, which is the tallest one and the world's most visited national park per square meter; Mt Gwanak in the south, also a forest park; and last but not least, the iconic Namsan in the very center of the city.   

A modern metropolis with many contemporary landmarks, is also the birthplace of K-pop and the Korean Wave.  Seoul is the world's 9th most visited city and 4th largest earner in tourism. Interestingly, in 2017, the city was ranked 6th in terms of cost of living.  But this should not scare you away: as a tourist you can have a very comfort stay in Seoul with less money than in most European or American big cities.

I made early arrangements for accommodation (as I was planning to stay for nearly a month there) and early arrangements for air fare and I got really good prices: 80 USD (breakfast included) per night for a super nice, double-occupancy room in a very well located (ACUBE Hotel) 3star hotel.  The cost of living while you are there could be very low if you decide to move around on foot and/or public transportation and if you choose to eat in market food stalls, where, by the way, you find the best food!

The people in red.  Seoul tourism employees walk around the city in couples dressed in red and are always ready to help you with any question you may have.  Seoul values tourism a lot.

The people in red.  Seoul tourism employees walk around the city in couples dressed in red and are always ready to help you with any question you may have.  Seoul values tourism a lot.

Today, Seoul is considered a leading and rising global city, resulting from an economic boom called the Miracle on the Han River, which transformed it to the world's 4th largest metropolitan economy after Tokyo, New York City and Los Angeles.  It is rated Asia's most livable city with the second highest quality of life globally, and it is a world leading technology hub, with companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai-Kia having the leading role.  Seoul is the world's most wired city and ranked first in technology readiness. 

Seoul hosted the 1986 Asian Games, 1988 Summer Olympics, 2002 FIFA World Cup, the Miss Universe 1980 pageant, the 2010 G-20 Seoul summit and the 2018 Winter Olympics. A UNESCO City of Design, Seoul was named the 2010 World Design Capital.

Well?  I am sure you are already packing your suitcases!  Seoul is waiting for you.  But first, read the rest of this travelogue and be ready and well prepared! 

Important Note: It is impossible to visit every little corner of Seoul: it is a huge city.  I stayed there for 3 weeks and I had the opportunity to visit all major places, but I believe I needed at least another three weeks to cover the places I planned to visit.  People usually visit the city for 3-5 days and get their city experience by organized tours.  My advice to visitors is to choose and visit only some of the major attractions that I describe here (for example: one Palace, a couple of markets, the Seoul Tower, etc) and the rest of their time just relax and walk around the city, mix with locals and absorb the smells and colors of Seoul.  Do not rush around!

PyeongChang 2018

The 2018 Winter Olympics, commonly known as PyeongChang 2018 took place from 9 to 25 February 2018 in Pyeongchang County, South Korea. 

The 2018 Olympics was the second Olympic Games held in South Korea, after the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul.

Some days before my trip to Seoul, back in Greece, I witnessed the 2018 Winter Olympics torch relay Actually, the torch arrived in Korea, just one day before my arrival in Seoul.

Me with Soohorang (left), the mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and Bandabi (right), the mascot of the 2018 Winter Paralympics

Me with Soohorang (left), the mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and Bandabi (right), the mascot of the 2018 Winter Paralympics

Winter Olympics mascots at 2017 Seoul Lantern Festival

Winter Olympics mascots at 2017 Seoul Lantern Festival

Kimchi (the taste of Korea)

Kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine, is a traditional side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly napa cabbage and Korean radishes, with a variety of seasonings including chili powder, scallions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood).  

The origin of kimchi dates back at least to the early period of the Three Kingdoms (37 BC‒7 AD). There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi made with different vegetables as the main ingredients. In traditional preparations, kimchi was stored underground in jars to keep cool, and unfrozen during the winter months. With the rise of technology, kimchi refrigerators are more commonly used to make kimchi.

The necessary photo in traditional dress, just before kimjang.

The necessary photo in traditional dress, just before kimjang.

Just watch TV commercials and you will understand how important kimchi refrigerators are for Koreans!

Kimchi at Lotte Department Store.

Kimchi at Lotte Department Store.

4th Seoul Kimchi Festival.

4th Seoul Kimchi Festival.

The art of Kimchi is considered very important in Korean culture, so those who master the art of kimjang (kimchi-making) are well respected persons. 

Kimchi has its own museum, the Museum Kimchikan in Insa-dong, Seoul.

: www.kimchikan.com

In the past, "kimjang day" was a day for sharing love, a day for festivals and feasting.  With the first Seoul Kimchi Festival in 2014, the much-forgotten Korean sharing spirit came alive and kimjang was created into a cultural festival. 

This year’s 4th Seoul Kimchi Festival took place between the 3rd and the 5th of November and thousand of people participated in several activities.

The Seoul Kimchi Festival takes place every year in November at Seoul Plaza, just in front of the City Hall.

  • ☞ Address: Seoul Plaza (City Hall)
  • ☞ Directions: CiyHall Station (Subway Line 1), Exit 5 & 6.
People at 4th Seoul Kimchi Festival.

People at 4th Seoul Kimchi Festival.

Kimchi celebrations.

Kimchi celebrations.

Kimchi Me!

Kimchi Me!

Pictorial Note:  The perfect souvenir. 

Buy small kimchi cans from the supermarket to give as Korea souvenirs.  I am sure your friends will love it. 

Kimchi is something you have to taste, it cannot be described with words.

Matcha (garucha)

Matcha is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. It is special in two aspects of farming and processing: the green tea plants for matcha are shade-grown for about three weeks before harvest and the stems and veins are removed in processing. During shaded growth, the plant “Camellia sinensis” produces more theanine and caffeine. This combination of chemicals is considered to account for the calm energy people might feel from drinking matcha. The powdered form of matcha is consumed differently from tea leaves or tea bags, and is dissolved in a liquid, typically water or milk.

Matcha is more associated with Japan, but people in all Far East countries love it.  And I love it, too. 

In China they call it “mo-cha” and in Korea “malcha” or “garucha”.

Products with matcha in Korea.

Products with matcha in Korea.

This year's festive Sturbacks cake: matcha & cherries.

This year's festive Sturbacks cake: matcha & cherries.

Me eating matcha cake with a spoon!

Me eating matcha cake with a spoon!

Macha is used in castella cake, manjū, and monaka; as a topping for shaved ice (kakigori); mixed with milk and sugar as a drink; and mixed with salt and used to flavor tempura in a mixture known as matcha-jio.

It is also used as flavoring in many Western-style chocolates, candy, and desserts, such as cakes and pastries (including Swiss rolls and cheesecake), cookies, pudding, mousse, and green tea ice cream. The Japanese snack Pocky has a matcha-flavoured version as well as KitKat.

The use of matcha in modern and fashionable drinks has also spread to all Asian, American and European cafés, such as Starbucks, which introduced "Green Tea Lattes" and other matcha-flavoured drinks after matcha became successful in their Japanese store locations.  As in Japan, it has become integrated into lattes, iced drinks, milkshakes, and smoothies.  Several cafes have introduced lattes and iced drinks using matcha powder. It has also been incorporated into alcoholic beverages such as liqueurs and even matcha green tea beers.

Matcha is everywhere in Korea and we love it!!!!

Matcha roll with black beans (left) and Matcha milk spread (right).  It was my first time I tasted the spread and I brought some with me back home!

Matcha roll with black beans (left) and Matcha milk spread (right).  It was my first time I tasted the spread and I brought some with me back home!

Seoul Lantern Festival (서울빛초롱축제)

Lanterns in Cheonggyecheon Stream.

Lanterns in Cheonggyecheon Stream.

Since its inception in 2009, the annual Seoul Lantern Festival, one of the representative festivals in Seoul, is held throughout the period from the first Friday of November to the third Sunday of November.

Every year millions of visitors come to enjoy lanterns along the 1.2km Cheonggyecheon Stream with various things to see stretching all the way from Cheonggye Plaza and Supyogyo Bridge.

In 2017 (when I was there)  the festival took place between the 3rd and the 19th of November and it emphasizes on the  PyeongChang 2018 winter Olympic games.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

2017 Seoul Lantern Festival lantern figures.

Bandabi, the mascot of the 2018 Winter Paralympics, plays curling.

Bandabi, the mascot of the 2018 Winter Paralympics, plays curling.

The Festival Angel.

The Festival Angel.

The elevator buttons in our hotel in Seoul. 

The elevator buttons in our hotel in Seoul.  "F" replaces number "4".

😥 Tetraphobiais the practice of avoiding instances of the number 4.  It is a superstition most common in East Asian nations. The reason is that the word 4 sounds similar or identical to "death".  In South Korea, tetraphobia is less extreme than other countries in the area, the number 4 sounds like "decease" and "died", but the floor number 4 or room number 4 is almost always skipped in hospitals, funeral halls, and similar public buildings.  In other buildings, like hotels, the fourth floor is sometimes labelled "F" (Four) instead of "4" in elevators. Apartment numbers containing multiple occurrences of the number 4 (such as 404) are likely to be avoided to an extent that the value of the property is adversely affected. Some of these combinations are considered more unlucky than the individual 4, for example 14 sounds like "Time to be deceased" and 44 sounds like "Died and Deceased".

😠 Trash Bins:  there are almost no trash bins in the streets or any public areas in Seoul.  You may walk for miles to spot one.  You better keep your trash with you and throw it away when you are back at your hotel or in a café/restaurant. The reason? It all started in 1994 when Seoul instituted pay-as-you-throw tax system. All trash is legally required to be thrown away in special taxed trash bags. When tax was imposed on trash bags, trash disposal at public trash cans almost doubled as people started to "illegally" dispose of trash at public trash cans. This naturally increased the collection cost and required municipals to install more public trash cans.  To avoid this and the extra cost, municipals started removing some of the public trash cans where people were dumping trash illegally.  This, resulted in people not being able to throw trash in public trash cans anymore and taking trash home and dispose it "legally".  Seoul broadly adopted this system and actively trimmed the number of trash cans over time everywhere - especially the ones near residential areas - to prevent cheating and change the public behavior in how they dispose trash. The city wants to bring back the trash cans now that the system is well established, but nothing happened yet.

Tips & Hints 

All zebra crossings come into pairs.

🤭 Zebra crossings: in general, drivers respect pedestrians when crossing zebras, but you better be alert, especially on "right turn" at traffic lights.

The red traffic lights last long when it comes for pedestrians to cross the street, that is reasonabe as vehicle traffic needs longer times to be accommodated by the system.

Zebra crossings come in two: that means there is always a set of two crossings side by side.  The reason is the efficient accommodation of two ways of pedestrian crossings.

There are little arrows indicating which one of the two crossings to use.

 😎 Conservatism: Koreans are the most “westernized” (or should I say Americanized?) nation in the Far East, at least in the cities.  I suppose this happens because of the constant American presence in the area.  Maybe this is one of the reasons people are very conservative both in appearance and behavior.  The other factor, that may have led to conservatism, is Christianity, which has influenced this country in a unique way.  Dressing code for the youth is very conservative compared to the flashy Japanese youth culture or the all-brand Chinese one.  My comparison measure is called "Uniqlo-meter".  Uniqlo is a Japanese clothes brand name with stores all over the world.  When you get into a Uniqlo Store in Japan or China it is full of color!  Here in Korea all clothes are black and blue only and maybe some earth colors like brown and khaki. 

All zebra crossings come into pairs.

Long coat fashion for all.

Long coat fashion for all.

😀 Winter fashion: When we arrived in Seoul, early November, the weather was very good: sunny and crispy with temperatures from 12°C to 20°C.  So, we only needed a light autumn jacket and maybe a hat during the night.  Nevertheless, looking people around us, we thought that there must be something in the Korean genes and they cannot tolerate “low” temperatures.  Otherwise, how could one explain the fact that all young (and the not so young ones) people wore long, heavy, duck down coats, like the ones we wear in the snow/ski resorts, but longer?  All shop windows advertised these kind of coats: the longer and the heavier the better!  Most of them with hoods to make you feel warm in these extreme temperatures!!!  Even though, it seemed crazy to us, this is the fashion this winter in Seoul … I do not know if that was the case also last year or will be next year, too… but it was very weird! 

Lotte World Tower & Lotte World Mall.

Lotte World Tower & Lotte World Mall.

😮 Lotte: The moment you land in Seoul you believe thee is something magical called “Lotte”.  It seams that everything is called “Lotte-something”.  Lotte was established in 1948 in Tokyo, by Korean businessman Shin Kyuk-ho. Shin expanded Lotte to his home country, South Korea with the establishment of Lotte Confectionery in Seoul in 1967. Lotte eventually grew to become South Korea's eighth largest business conglomerate, but certainly you feel like it is the No 1. Lotte is engaged in such diverse industries as candy manufacturing, beverages, hotels, fast food, retail, financial services, heavy chemicals, electronics, IT, construction, publishing, rent a car, housing, real estate and entertainment like cinemas and amusement parks.  The source of the company's name is neither Korean nor Japanese, but German.  The founder of the company was impressed with Goethe's “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774) and named his newly founded company Lotte after the character Charlotte in the novel ("Charlotte" is also the name of a new brand of deluxe movie theatres run by Lotte).

Other streets, mainly -gil, may be named after the street name it diverging from with a systematic number. There are three different types of numbering rules: basic numbering, serial numbering and other numbering. The purpose of numbering streets is to make street names easier to predict position of it so address users find their destination streets or buildings easily on the maps or the streets.

First, by basic numbering, which is used in most of Gyeonggi Province, a number is assigned to -gil diverging from -daero or -ro based on the basic number of the position diverging from -daero or -ro. Since the basic number increases by 2 every 20 meters, the basic number multiplied by 10 meters comes to the distance from the start point of the street to the current position. For example, Nongol-ro 10beon-gil indicates that the street diverges from Nongol-ro and the diverging position is about 100 meters away from the start point of Nongol-ro. Since 10 is even number, the street towards right side of Nongol-ro. Note that basic numbered street names have beon-gil after their numbers, which indicates basic number.

Second, by serial numbering, which is used in Seoul, a serial number is assigned to -gil diverging from -daero or -ro, based on -daero or -ro number order. For example, if a street is the first one among streets diverging from Daehak-ro, it becomes Daehak-ro 1-gil. If a street is 4th among streets diverging from Daehak-ro, it becomes Daehak-ro 4-gil. Since 4 is even number, the street towards right side of Daehak-ro. Note that basic numbered street names do not have -beon after their numbers, which indicates serial number.

Third, by other numbering, a serial number is assigned to -ro or -gil reflecting local characteristics. Streets diverging from -gil are named after -gil with the diverging -gil with the additional number in Korean alphabet: -ga, -na, -da, -ra, -ma ... For example, the third diverging street of Daehak-ro 4-gil would be Daehak-ro 4da-gil. This secondary diverging numbering is applied to all of the numbering rules.

😲 Street names: The Street names used to be a real mess in Korea.  Since 2011 the system changed to a comprehensive naming system.  Korean streets have names, typically ending in -daero (Boulevard), -ro (Street) or -gil (Road) and they are distinguished by width; -daero (over 8 lanes), -ro(2-7 lanes), -gil (others, usually narrow roads or alleys).

Some of streets, mainly -daero and -ro, may be named after a feature in the area such as Daehak-ro (University Street) near a university, or after the neighborhood (-dong) in which they lie such as Hyehwa-ro (Hyehwa Street) which lies in Hyehwa-dong. Street names may be unique, or, in a convention which may seem confusing to foreigners, the same name can be re-used for several streets in the same area, with each street having a unique number.

FOOD ingredients 

(garlic, chili, anchovy and more)

Garlic (다진 마늘)

Garlic!  Who does not love garlic?  What is an acceptable quantity of garlic in food?  In which country fresh garlic, as well as fermented garlic, is sold by kilos? 

The answer to the last question is not Russia, it is Korea!

The moment you enter Seoul you are sure that people here don’t only they love garlic, but they use it in big quantities.  Sometimes, the smell of garlic is so intense in buses and metro carriages, that you’d rather walk to your destination.  

Garlic cloves are sold in markets in huge quantities

Garlic cloves are sold in markets in huge quantities

It is not unusual to get into a Starbucks café and instead of the delicate coffee aroma you smell only garlic.

Garlic is one the most important ingredients in Korean cuisine. Most Korean recipes call for minced garlic as part of the seasoning. Whole garlic cloves are often used to make Korean broth, soups or stews. Koreans also enjoy pickled garlic as a side dish and grilled garlic with Korean BBQ and table cooking.

gochu (고추, chili)

Gochu

Gochu

Gochugaru (or kochukaru, or gochutgaru), also known as Korean chili (gochu) powder (garu), is fine chili powder or a coarsely ground chili with a texture between flakes and powder.

Traditionally, gochugaru is made from sun-dried chili peppers, and versions that are prepared in this manner are still considered the best tasting. The flavor is hot, sweet, and slightly smoky. Substitutes like crushed red pepper or cayenne just don't compare. 

Gochujang

Gochujang

Chili peppers (gochu) introduced in Korea in the early 16th century. Chili peppers originated in the Americas, introduced to East Asia by Portuguese traders. The first mention of chili pepper in Korea is found in Jibong yuseol, an encyclopedia published in 1614. 

Red chili peppers are an essential ingredient in Korean cuisine.  The variety used in Korea, is Capsicum annuum, the oldest of the domesticated species, with evidence of its cultivation in Mesoamerica dating to at least 5,000 years ago.

Gochugaru

Gochugaru

Gochujang (고추장, red chili paste) is a savory, sweet, and spicy fermented condiment made from gochugaru, glutinous rice, mejutgaru (fermented soybean powder), yeotgireum (barley malt powder), and salt. The sweetness comes from the starch of cooked glutinous rice, cultured with saccharifying enzymes during the fermentation process. Traditionally, it has been naturally fermented over years in jangdok (earthenware) on an elevated stone platform, called jangdokdae, in the backyard. The making of gochujang at home began tapering off when commercial production came into the mass market in the early 1970s. Now, most Koreans purchase gochujang at grocery stores or markets. It is used extensively in Korean cooking to flavor stews.

Chili broth.

Chili broth.

Anchove (멸치)

Anchovy is one of the most frequently used ingredients in Korean cooking, especially for stews and soups.

Koreans usually use dried anchovy to make broth (stock) or side dishes, but they also use fresh (raw) ones to make pickled (fermented) fish. Since it is mainly composed of calcium, anchovy is also known as "King of Calcium" in Korea.

The ways of cooking anchovy vary depending on its size. Big ones (Dasi-myulchi) are usually used for broth and small ones (Bokkeum-myulchi) for side dishes. Dried anchovy can be also served without cooking as a snack.

Dry anchovies

Dry anchovies

Dried shrimp (건새우)

Dried and marinated shrimp.

Dried and marinated shrimp.

Dried shrimp are shrimp that have been sun-dried and shrunk to a small size.

Dried shrimp in Korean cuisine are soaked briefly to reconstitute them, and are then stir-fried with seasonings—typically garlic, ginger, scallions, soy sauce, sugar, and hot peppers—and served as a side dish. It is called "mareunsaeu bokkeum". They are also used in some Korean braised dishes (jorim) and used for making broth. 

Dried shrimp are used frequently in asian cuisines for their sweet and unique flavor that is very different from fresh shrimp. They have the coveted umami flavor, or savory taste, which is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness).

fish Roe (날치알)

Fish roe (fish eggs) is a common ingredient used in Korean cooking.  It is used to make stews, soups, rice.  Some popular dishes with fish roe are:  Al-bap is a popular rice dish that consists of delicate fish roe (or caviar) along with various vegetables, and steam white rice in a steaming hot ceramic called ddukbaegi or in a stone pot called dolsot; Al-chigae is a fish egg casserole dish which contains tofu and assortment of vegetables in a refreshing, spicy broth; Al-tang, which is hot spice egg roe soup; Korean "sushi", etc.

Fish roe sold in markets.

Fish roe sold in markets.

Soybean paste (된장)

Supermarket doenjang (bottom) and market doenjang (top)

Supermarket doenjang (bottom) and market doenjang (top)

Soybean paste (doenjang) is a classic fermented Korean seasoning used in countless dishes, dips, soups and stews in Korean cuisine. It’s deep and rich, nutty and full of umami. Soup or stew made with doenjang are the most iconic and delicious of all Korean dishes.

It’s made by grinding soybeans into a thick paste and forming it into blocks that are dried and fermented for months before being soaked in brine for a few more months. The liquid becomes Korean soup soy sauce and the solids become doenjang.

Of course, like all ingredients, today everything can be bought at the supermarket.