Due to political turmoil in the 1930s, many ethnic Koreans who lived in Russia at the time were forced to relocate to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Several generations later, many of these families have returned to the motherland along with fellow ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs seeking employment, bringing with them the rich culinary traditions of Central Asia.
With over 40 different menu offerings, Samarkand offers an opportunity to experience a culture thousands of miles away, right in the heart of Seoul.
Even if you don’t speak Russian, Uzbek or Tajik, you can still enjoy some of Seoul’s most unique and authentic cuisine at Samarkand, a restaurant owned and operated by an ethnic Uzbek family. This charming grandfather-father-son trio offer an opportunity to experience typical Uzbek dishes just outside the popular Dongdaemun shopping district. Among several other Central Asian eateries, Samarkand is located in the Guanghui-dong neighborhood. Storefronts feature signs in Cyrillic lettering, a visual affirmation of this unique demographic in South Korea.
A small restaurant with about seven to eight tables and simple décor, what Samarkand lacks in ambience is easily compensated by their diverse menu offerings. Be prepared to use basic Korean to order, as the staff does not speak English. Nevertheless, diners of all backgrounds can easily decipher the menu with the aid of colorful photographs. Feel free to eat to your heart’s content as prices are very affordable. Salads begin at 3,000 won, while soups and main entrées start at a mere 6,000 won.
Even those averse to vegetables will find the marinated carrot salad tempting. With a hint of garlic, a splash of vinegar and a surprisingly spicy kick at the end, it’s a great side to the mild flavors found in the main entrées. Not to be outdone, the brightly colored chopped beet salad is also a great accompaniment as a starter. Borscht soup is comforting and vaguely familiar. With its homemade beef stock base, it could be considered a more flavorful cousin of the Korean seolleongtang (설렁탕). The only indication of its overseas roots is the deep, red-purple color influenced by beets and the dollop of fresh sour cream on top.
Diners may choose main dishes created with beef, lamb, chicken or fish. Shashlik, or kebab, comes seasoned with vinegar, salt and pepper. The lamb shashlik came with several fatty pieces that I deemed inedible, so the chicken or ground beef may be better alternatives, whereas adventurous eaters may want to give the liver kebab option a go. On the menu are two different dumpling choices: manti and pelmini and diners will find the latter to be a tasty dish that will suit both western and local Korean sensibilities. The bite-sized, thinly-wrapped dumplings are served with fresh ground pepper, a scattering of green onions, and another spoonful of tangy sour cream. At the time of visit, golubtsy, a meat-filled cabbage wrap was sold out, but a visit for lunch or early dinner may help to secure an order of the popular dish.
Also recommended is the samsa, a flaky pastry filled with onions and lamb or beef. Easily eaten as a snack, it is perfect with a steaming cup of tea. And of course, no meal from this region is complete without a Russian beer. You may select from four varieties of Baltica: 3, 6, 7 or 9, numbers which reflect flavor and alcohol strength. Or you could try them all because with over 40 different menu offerings, Samarkand offers a plethora of opportunities to experience a culture thousands of miles away, right in the heart of Seoul.
Take the Metro Line 2, 4 or 5 to Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station. Take exit 5 and immediately take a right and cross the intersection. Go left 30 meters, and you’ll see a “Katrin” Russia market. Take a right in the alleyway and you’ll see an orange “Samarkand” sign in Cyrillic and Hangul lettering.