Gangwon-do is now my favorite province in Korea. It has it all—the quietly majestic mountains of Seoraksan National Park, the dark blue oceans of Naksan Beach, and food with some of the cleanest, most honest flavors I’ve had in Korea. I’d thought the food would be boring and starchy—buckwheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes—but the specialties we tried on Friday had so much more going on.
Bongpyeong, a small town about an hour from the coast, has set itself up as the Buckwheat Capital of South Korea. The town’s hometown hero is an early 20th-century novelist named Lee Hyo-Seok, whose most famous short story is titled, “When the Buckwheat Flower Blossoms.” It sounds awkward in English, probably because most English-speakers have no idea what buckwheat flowers look like. They’re not in bloom now, but the pictures at his museum show green fields topped with white flowers, prettier than anything you’d imagine could be associated with the word “buckwheat.”
The restaurants in Bongpyeong trumpet their dishes made of buckwheat, and you would be surprised how many there can be. (It reminded me a bit of Saravanaas, the South Indian restaurant in New York, where the food is delicious and varied, and 80% of the time, made out of lentils.)
The first dish we ordered at Migayoun was 메밀싹무침, memilmukssak-muchim, a firm jelly made of buckwheat seeds that had been tossed with buckwheat sprouts that had the tiniest yellow flowers at their tips. It was the kind of dish I can’t stop eating. The dish, like so many Korean dishes, was doing a balancing act, between the wholesome flavors of the muk and sprouts, the salty tanginess of the soy sauce and vinegar, and the slight spiciness of the ground red pepper and raw scallions. Hanging over it all was the luxuriously nutty smell of sesame seeds and sesame oil. I don’t know how easy it will be to find ground buckwheat seeds, let alone buckwheat sprouts in the U.S., but I’d love to try to replicate its fresh, crisp flavor in some way.
The stuffed buckwheat crepes, 메밀전병, memil jeonbyeong, had a completely different texture but a similar aesthetic. The crepes were springy, as if the batter had fermented slightly, and the filling of tofu and kimchi was more tangy than spicy, a quiet complement to the flavor of the crepes.
But the most famous dish in Bongpyeong is 막국수, makgukgsu, buckwheat noodles served in a vegetable-based broth, though you can also get it cold and soup-less with a sweet and spicy red pepper sauce. That’s what I had. The noodles are quite different from soba. Soba, to me, always tastes very intensely of buckwheat. I love soba and the way the taste comes through so purely in whatever preparation it’s in. Here, the noodles were chewy and certainly made of buckwheat, but the overall effect was of the whole dish—the sesame oil in the vegetable broth, the pickled radish in my bibimmakguksu.
I can understand why memil is becoming more popular in Korea. It tastes healthy, and even though I’m often suspicious of foods that “taste healthy,” I really did love how the flavors that came together were bound by crispness and nuttiness, rather than the rich unctuousness of anything meat-based.