Take a look at a world map and you’ll quickly see how close Korea is to Russia geographically. It’s unsurprising therefore that Russians have been living Korea for a very long time. Russia was one of the first foreign countries to establish an embassy in Korea in the 1880s, and if it hadn’t been defeated by Japan in 1905, Russia would certainly have been the dominant colonial power on the peninsula before the second world war.
These days the majority of Russians living in South Korea are business people, factory workers and sadly, prostitutes. Many a blonde American girl has mistakenly been approached on the street by Korean men looking for a little ‘Russian cultural exchange.’ In Gwanghui-dong near the Dongdaemun markets a little Central Asia has emerged, with Russian merchants living and working alongside Uzbek, Kazakh and Mongolian immigrants. Many are in fact ethnic Koreans born abroad, but the whole area retains a distinctly ‘un-Korean’ feel.
The neighbourhood itself is not exactly a tourist site, just a collection of foreign businesses and restaurants. It’s a testament to Seoul’s relative lack of multiculturalism that the area is so small and run-down yet still manages to feel almost exotic. The longer you live in Seoul, the more you crave the slightest hint of difference. The area is worth a look just to see signs in Cyrillic instead of Hangeul, and to see the mix of Eurasian people on the street. Sitting upstairs in a small Russian restaurant, it was strangely refreshing to hear a foreign language other than Korean spoken by the – totally Korean looking – diners sitting next to us.
It was the lure of the food, of course, that brought us to the Russian neighbourhood. I’d never tried Russian food before, and I came in armed only with the suspect knowledge that borscht is a Russian soup made with beetroot. The restaurant was named Gostiny Dvor, a word which means something like ‘indoor marketplace’ in Russian. It was definitely a step out of Seoul. The décor was all polished woods and high-backed chairs. Cheap chandeliers hung overhead, glittering down on rows of thick vodka bottles lined up like munitions. The heavy tables were set with floral china plates under quaint doilies; the whole place had a solid elegance about it. Even before ordering it was obvious that Russian food is heavy-duty stuff.
The waitress – dark-haired, oriental, surly – handed us a menu disdainfully and disappeared behind the bar. She spoke better English than Korean. We ordered beer, borscht, pork with vegetables and peppers (capsicum in the Aussie vernacular) stuffed with pork. I wanted to try something with lamb, but the girlfriend, being Korean, reminded me that ‘lamb smells.’ Pork it was.
The borscht was red and thin, with mounds of shredded cabbage beneath the surface, a dollop of sour cream and a dash of pepper. It was excellent, as were the pork and stuffed peppers. We decided to order another dish, although the seemingly small dishes had already filled us up. Pancakes with cream cheese sounded more curious than delicious, but they were perfectly soft and savoury. But the beer was perhaps the best part. Mine was a dark porter, Baltika no. 6 (7 percent!) and the girlfriend went for the no. 3, a pale lager (only 4.8 percent). The no. 6 was black and thick like vegemite, and had a strangely similar taste. It was quite a meal itself and I really enjoyed it.
Being completely uninitiated with Russian food, I’m not able to judge authenticity, but for taste and quality I was impressed. I guess my early impression of Russian food is, like the interior of Gostiny Dvor itself, a curious mix of dainty, classy little touches – herbs, spices, cream – and heavy with meats and thick sauces. As we finished our meal the chef came out to the fridge behind us and poured out a whole glass of vodka, downed it in one and went back into the kitchen. It struck me as a very Russian end to the evening.
Take Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway station exit 7 and take a u-turn to the right to find Gostiny Dvor. Exit 5 will also bring you close to the Central Asian neighbourhoods.