Thin slivers of marbled beef are lowered into a bubbling anchovy and seaweed broth. Buckwheat noodles and spring onions are added before our waiter kills the flame, spooning out small bowls of the broth, leaving us to tangle with the rest. These are the best noodles I've ever tasted.
OK, so maybe I'm getting a tad overexcited. But it's my first meal in a new country, eating a cuisine that I know little about — and the noodles really do taste good. South Korea isn't at the top of everybody's gastronomic list, but it soon will be if Judy Joo gets her way.
Joo, a New York chef with Korean heritage, who has worked for Gordon Ramsay for the past two and a half years, wants to put South Korean food on the map. She has already wowed audiences on the television food show Market Kitchen with a refreshing take on her native country's cuisine, and she dreams of opening a Korean restaurant in London one day. But for now, her efforts include educating me, and it has been a revelation.
At the heart of South Korean cooking is kimchi, essentially fermented vegetables. It was this that most intrigued me about the cuisine — no meal is complete without at least two different kimchi, served as side dishes. It's addictive and boasts impressive healing powers. I wanted to know more.
'Why don't we go to the kimchi festival in Gwangju in South Korea?' Joo suggested one day. So here I am, in Seoul, at the start of our trip, getting messy with chopsticks.
'What you see is what you get with Korean food,' declares Joo, at noodle restaurant Shin Jung. 'It's healthier than Chinese cuisine and more flavourful than Japanese. It's punchy, lively, honest cooking — a bit like the people,' she says, as we finish the multi-course marathon with slices of juicy, melon-like Korean pear.
To get our food bearings, we take the metro 20 minutes west to Mapo market. There we find lotus flower and burdock roots, radishes as huge as marrows and rows of green and white cabbages, destined for the most common form of kimchi, tong baechu. Boxes of khaki-coloured bracken sit alongside leeks, and what I take for mint is actually dropwort, all popular ingredients.
The fish market in the next hall is even more impressive. Male and female stallholders decked out in pink plastic aprons measure out mudfish caught in the rice paddies and wrestle with king crabs that lord it over the fish tanks with powerful pincers. Highly prized abalone (sea snail) is also in abundance, perched on teetering mounds of crushed ice.
We try some abalone for lunch — grilled and garnished with gingko nuts — at the Dalgaebi, which offers diners an introduction to the country's royal court cuisine (surasang). Once the preserve of kings and queens, it is now available for us ordinary folk to try, with its elaborate presentation and use of sought-after ingredients, though it costs little more than £30 a head.
We eat walnut soup, raw radish and sole, marinated beef (bulgogi), dumplings served with sticky medallions of rice cake (mandu guk), and rare songi mushrooms floating in a delicate broth. Pleasantly full (though never bloated, for South Korean cuisine is healthy stuff), we head to the Tteok Café & Laboratory of Korean Traditional Food a few blocks away, near the stunning Gyeongbokgung Palace. Here, a whole floor is dedicated to celebrating the rice cake, a national obsession.