Countries of contrasts where tradition and innovation harmoniously sit side by side, China, Japan and South Korea are three nations that constantly find themselves right at the heart of an exciting culinary food scene. Here are some of our favourite dining experiences to try.
China, Japan and South Korea are burgeoning with fascinating histories, ultra-modern cities and jaw-dropping landscapes – and all three enjoy a distinctive world-class food culture, where an explosion of flavours, cooking styles, ancient customs and practices have shaped their diverse cuisines into what they are today.
With the introduction of more authentic Asian flavours into the British palate, our taste for traditional Pan-Asian cuisine has never been more prominent. We’ve created a number of tours which offer the ultimate foodie introduction to authentic Asian food. You can visit markets, food stalls and restaurants, giving you the opportunity to try delicious regional specialities and national treasures, to those weird and wonderful creations that make these food cultures so unique.
When in China, try...
Bustling Beijing has served as China's capital for over 800 years, and is the political and cultural heart of the country. Home to iconic sights like the Great Wall of China and Tian'anmen Square, Beijing is also the birthplace of its most famous dish, the traditional Peking Duck dinner. On each of our three China tours you'll have the chance to experience this fun and sociable banquet, where the duck is presented as the centrepiece of the table, and the host will show you the art to rolling the pancake the traditional Chinese way.
Creative, colourful dumplings
While the Terracotta Army is, in its own right, the most famous landmark in Xi'an, this ancient city is also home to its tastiest highlight, the famous dumpling. A steamed speciality where flavours can range to up to 20 different variations, in Xi'an dumplings are often a source of creativity, intricately shaped and coloured to resemble their ingredients... don't be surprised if you see a pig dumpling or two on your plate!
Deep-fried spider, anyone?
The bustling Muslim Quarter of Xi'an is a neighbourhood famed for its fantastic food markets and local atmosphere. A foodie heaven lined with numerous restaurants and street stalls, this is a great place to spend an afternoon wandering around – you'll see hundreds of stalls selling anything and everything, from cakes, dried fruits, breads and barbecued meats, to the more quirky side of Chinese cuisine like squid on skewers and even the occasional deep fried spider.
Time out in a teahouse
While cosmopolitan Shanghai may be a favourite for its upmarket restaurants, the city is perhaps best associated with its teahouses and tea shops. Within each you'll discover a huge variety of flavoured teas, each brewed to perfection using a special concoction of different leaves. With tea an integral part of Chinese culture - whether it be for encouraging longevity or curing an ailment – we recommend whiling away a few hours visiting the old town, where many of these serene and famous teahouses are located.
When in Japan, try…
Some Japanese pub grub
The high-tech capital of Tokyo may well be home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, but one of our favourite aspects of the city is its lively Izakaya restaurants – essentially, a type of informal Japanese pub. Found right in the heart of the city, these are a particularly popular haunt with locals after work, and offer a quintessential experience for anyone looking to really delve into authentic Japanese life.
Regional dishes in a ryokan
During a visit to the Kiso Valley, one of our favourite experiences is an overnight stay in a traditional ryokan. Offering you an authentic taste of traditional life, these Japanese inns flourish with traditional features like futon bedding, tatami straw flooring and rice paper sliding doors. Well known for their legendary hospitality, ryokans are also popular for their elaborate evening meals - on our Highlights of Japan tour you'll enjoy a multi-course affair, sampling a variety of smaller dishes which reflect the region's seasonal and local specialities.
A kaiseki ryori feast
Relatively off the beaten track, Kanazawa is a historical jewel in mainland Japan. Following a stroll through its quaint old streets, our tour will stop at one of the best Japanese inns in the city. Within, you'll enjoy a traditional feast of kaiseki ryori – a multi-course meal of Japanese-style haute cuisine – while overlooking the tranquil Saigawa river and charming Japanese gardens.
Vegetarian temple cuisine
The city of '10,000 shrines', it should come as no surprise that Kyoto's food scene is best associated with shojin ryori, a delicious vegetarian temple cuisine. Predominantly eaten by Buddhist monks, these dishes are centred around soybean-based foods like tofu and seasonal vegetables, and are a great opportunity to experience a vegetarian meal within a culture where vegetarianism and special diets are usually not catered for.
If you're looking for the weird and wonderful, then a visit to Nishiki in Kyoto is a must. Known as 'Kyoto's kitchen', this bustling food market is full to the brim with culinary delights, with over one hundred vendors selling all types of delicious and unusual local delicacies. Adventurous eaters will be in their element here, with snacks that can range from octopus skewers, to tofu doughnuts and sesame seed ice cream.
When in South Korea, try…
Weird and wonderful seafood
Busan is South Korea's second largest city, known for its beaches, mountains and temples on the south-eastern coast. An absolute highlight here is visiting Jagalchi Fish Market, the largest seafood market in the whole of Korea. A huge hub of activity, this is a fascinating place to wander around, with stall upon stall selling thousands of different fish varieties, most of which will be unrecognisable to western eyes. If an adventurous palate entices you, then you're welcome to buy a selection to take upstairs to the restaurant, where you can sit and watch as a chef will prepare and cook it for you there and then.
Fried chicken and beer
One of South Korea's favourite pastimes is eating Chimaek, a Korean-inspired pairing of fried chicken and beer! A fantastic way to spend an evening, this is not only a great opportunity to mingle with the locals, but to try one of the country's locally-produced craft beers.
Since Kimchi's recognition as one of the world's top superfoods, the Korean food scene has really started to increase in popularity in the UK. On our Highlights of South Korea tour, you'll be taken on a voyage of culinary discovery, starting in its capital Seoul where you'll have the opportunity to learn how to cook one of two national dishes – Kimchi, the stewed vegetable side dish, or the grilled marinated beef dish Bulgogi. Afterwards, you'll get to feast on your delicious creations for lunch!