Chungmu kimbap, now and forever

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This was my last meal in Korea.  It’s something I loved as a teenager, so it made sense to me to be eating it in Myeongdong, a noisy neighborhood of shops and cafes that I am really too old to be hanging out in any more.  But the beauty of food is that you’re really never too old to be eating something.  You might be too old to be at that club, or to be dressing in those clothes, but eating chungmu kimbap?  You can do that forever.

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충무 김밥, or chungmu kimbap, are rolls made of seaweed stuffed with rice, and served with a little pile of spicy but sweet cubes of lightly pickled Korean radish and another pile of equally spicy but sweet strips of boiled squid.  The rolls are always made a little skinny and cut a little long, more cylindrical than classic kimbap.  More importantly, the rolls are nothing but rice and toasted seaweed—no vinegar, no salt, no sesame oil.  But the very plainness of the rolls, the almost dry-sticky feeling of the toasted seaweed on your tongue as you eat them is the kind of extremeness in food that’s so appealing with you’re young.  And the intense heat of the kimchi and squid are at the opposite extreme.  Together, the dish is explosive, a very fun and easy bite to eat when toting shopping bags.

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But I was a little embarrassed to be eating it alone.  For some reason, it’s always served with toothpicks rather than real cutlery, which to me means that I’m supposed to be sharing one plate with Leslie or another friend from high school, spearing the rolls while we talk.  Koreans hate eating alone, and I could feel the ahjummas by the window eyeing me even as they made change and spoke to other customers.  It was Sunday, too, which meant Myeongdong was packed.  Every street food vendor was out, ready to sell potato sticks, skewered fish cake, and fried dough to the crowds.  I even saw some Turkish men selling doner kebabs, the first time I’ve ever seen non-Korean street food vendors in Seoul.  I loved what I was eating, but I ate as quickly as I could, finished shopping for gifts, and left.

When I got home, I told my mom what I ate, and she told me that chungmu kimbap is actually a regional specialty, from the city of Chungmu which is now called Geoje-si.  Geoje-si is in South Gyeongsan Province, in the southeast corner of the peninsula, which would explain the deep red of the kimchi and the prominent role of squid in the dish.  A little Googling showed me I’m not the only one who loves this dish; it even shows up on the Official Site of Korea Tourism, with a famous restaurant in Geoje-si.  (In classic, plain-spoken Korean fashion, the name of the restaurant is, you guessed it, Chungmu Grandmother Kimbap.)

It comforted me, somehow, to know this dish I associate so much with my teenage years has a much longer history.  And when I got back to Brooklyn and found a recipe for it in one of my Korean cookbooks, I was even happier.  The next time Leslie comes to visit, I’ll make it for her.

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4 Responses to “Chungmu kimbap, now and forever”

  1. Leslie Says:

    Yum! I look forward to it. That is one of those dishes that I regularly reminisce about but I don’t think I have actually eaten it since high school for some reason.

  2. snar Says:

    Hello nice post u have here. May i know if the shop that sell chungmu, sell any other dishes?

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