(Back in Seoul. I leave for New York tomorrow, Diane goes to Tokyo on Monday for a couple of days with her parents. I hope to catch up on all the things we ate and learned during our trip when I’m back in Brooklyn, though I won’t be able to post with the frequency I have these past two weeks. I do have a day job!)
After our feast of king crabs for lunch on Wednesday, we wanted to have a quieter dinner, something soothing and calming for our last night in Gyeongju. A colleague of Diane’s mother had recommended 경주원조콩국, Gyeongju Whunjo Kongguk, a restaurant known for its kongguk and kongguksu, or soybean soup and noodles in soybean sauce. My mother says that the province of Gyeongsanbuk-do, where Gyeongju is located, isn’t particularly known for its consumption of soybeans. But given how fantastic our dinner was, I think that restaurant alone could put Gyeongju on the map as the City of Soybeans.
I’d never had soybean soup before. I’d seen noodles in soybean sauce, it being a popular summer dish in Seoul, but growing up, I’d found the all-white color sort of frightening. And there was always something else I wanted to eat more. So it was a personal revelation to dip my spoon into the smooth, white surface and find a dish so delicate, fragrant, and delicious.
There were three ways you could order the warm soybean soup. Choice A came with black beans, black sesame seeds, honey, and sticky rice cakes, which they called “chapssal donuts.” Choice B came with sesame oil, perilla seeds, egg yolk, and dark sugar. Choice C came with perilla seeds, egg yolk, dark sugar, and sticky rice cakes. There was a small bowl of coarse salt on the table for each person to add to his or her own taste. I chose A, Diane chose C.
I LOVED Choice A.
The flavor was very simple and clean when I first tasted it. When I added a bit of salt, the sweetness of the soup bloomed. As I stirred it, I realized all the black beans and sesame seeds, with the chewy, sticky rice cakes, had sunk to the bottom. Together, the soup came alive. The sesame seeds were so fragrant, with a very delicate nuttiness that enhanced the nuttiness of the soybeans themselves. And the chapssal donuts! As Diane said, “They had me at the word ‘donut.’” They didn’t disappoint, being warm, chewy and very, very comforting.
The soup would make a fantastic breakfast, something rich in protein but easy on the stomach early in the morning. According to my mother, it takes a little bit of effort to make kongguk since it’s not cooked for very long, and in the summer, you need to be careful to keep the soybeans from going bad. But I think it’s the kind of food that’s worth the bit of extra effort.
(The photo at the top is of Anapji Pond, an artificial lake built by a Shilla king in the 600s, and the only place of non-culinary cultural significance we visited in Gyeongju, which is probably the most historically rich city in Korea. What can I say, we traveled with a singular goal.)