Look out for these local specialties in the South Korean capital during spring and early summer.
Spring is a glorious time in Seoul as the city thaws from its deep winter freeze and begins to come to life. But it's not just the weather that makes this a great time to visit, as the seasonal flavors of the city also come out to shine. City dwellers begin to flock to the parks with picnic baskets to enjoy the merriment of free-flowing soju liquor and seasonal specialties to complement the classic dishes that South Korea is known for.
Cherry blossom bites
There's no better way to celebrate the beginning of spring than delighting in Seoul's cherry blossom (sakura) festivities held between late March and the end of April. These enchanting pink flowers bursting into bloom all over the city are a feast for the eyes and taste buds as locals gather with picnics to revel in the occasion. At this time of year, you'll find everything from cherry blossom-flavored ice cream and pink frozen coffees to pink burgers, pink bagels, and pink popcorn. Keep an eye out, too, for seasonal sakura soju, made by infusing this local tipple with cherry blossom. But if you miss the cherry blossoms, don’t despair, as anytime during the warmer months is still a great time to pack a picnic and enjoy the city’s parks.
Insider tip: Yeouido Park, Children’s Grand Park, Seokchon Lake, and Namsan are all popular for taking in the cherry blossom displays, but for more a more relaxed experience away from the crowds, try Seoul Forest.
A lavish way to sample Seoul’s seasonal spring and summer produce is to treat yourself to a traditional hanjeongsik (Korean banquet). This dining tradition dates from the Joseon Dynasty, and is a meal fit for royalty. The multi-dish spread involves an astounding amount of food, with plate after plate arriving at your table. The wonderful culinary experience shows off the full array of Korean cuisine that’s driven by the seasons, including springtime namul (foraged greens).
Strawberry shortcake season
Cherry blossoms aren’t the only colorful event in town come spring—it’s also the season to celebrate strawberries. You’ll find them everywhere, and not just the fresh variety, but limited-edition everything, including strawberry-flavored shakes, juices, and bingsu (shaved ice). Sweet tooths should also look out for the wonderfully kitsch strawberry dessert buffets at the high-end hotels across the city. Check out Baekmidang, not only for its winning blend of strawberries and soft-milk ice cream, but also for a whole range of local seasonal delights – from melon to young wormwood.
Fruits of the sea
Seoul's bounty of seasonal produce doesn't stop at fruit and vegetables, as spring also brings in a haul of seafood which is available only during these months. The most famous is king crab, a delicacy caught off the east coast of South Korea and available in Seoul's seafood restaurants. It's also jjukkumi season. This famous dish of mini octopus barbecued in a spicy sauce is best sampled along Seongnae-dong Jjukkumi Alley (Octopus Street). During springtime, there’s plenty of roe as well to add an additional burst of flavor.
Insider tip: Seoul's largest seafood market, Noryangjin Fish Market, offers a wonderful array of ocean delicacies, including king crab. Order from vendors and take your purchase to the attached restaurants to cook onsite.
As summer rolls in, so does a whole new set of seasonal flavors, most famous of which is samgye-tang, a fragrant dish of a whole small chicken stuffed with rice in a fragrant broth of ginseng, jujube fruits, ginger, and herbs. And though a piping hot chicken soup may seem like the last thing you want on a balmy summer's day, locals swear by its cooling effect, which is in keeping with the traditional Korean principle of “yi yeol chi yeol” (fighting heat with heat). But if you want to go the other way, patbingsu is a classic icy summer dessert of sweet red beans and tteok (rice cakes) on shaved ice.
Insider tip: Tosokchon Samgyetang, conveniently located outside the Gyeongbokgung Palace, is one of Seoul's best spots to try this herbal chicken soup.