Archive for the ‘Gyeongju’ Category

Bean soup like never before

February 28, 2009

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(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.

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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.)

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Arbitrary Numbers

February 24, 2009

I can’t stop thinking of banana milk when I drink dongdongju (동동주).  Maybe it’s because of the consistency, its ever-so-slightly viscous texture. Or maybe it’s because of the (imagined?) hints of artificial banana extract in both aroma and flavor. It’s probably not the alcohol. Whatever it is, this spritzy cloudy rice wine makes me happy, whether it comes flavored with deodeok (더덕) as it did at the soondubu (순두부) house last night or with omija (오미자) this afternoon at the pajun (파전) house.

오미자 동동주

My smarty pants boyfriend likes to tease me about my tendency to put a number to arbitrary measures. For example, these days, I am 60% sure that we are picking the right restaurant that best represents the region we are visiting.  He’s going to be green with jealousy that I’m able to use this skill again as the omija flavored version [pictured above] this afternoon was three times as good as the deodeok version even though I was unable to recognize all five flavors that you’re supposed to get from this red berry. The whereabouts of “salty” and “spicy” remain a mystery, but I’m happy to report that “sweet”, “sour” and “bitter” flavors brightened up the dongdongju.  This pretty pink rice wine was smooth.

더덕 동동주

The deodeok-infused dongdongju, on the other hand, made me feel more virtuous for recognizing this traditional root that I prefer as a crunchy side dish marinated in soy sauce and red chili paste rather than relegated as a mere flavor enhancer in my drink. This brotherly version to this afternoon’s feminine omija dongdongju was slightly more cloying and less balanced, but was nonetheless fun and fitting company to food full of character and spice despite being three times less good.

Gyeongju sundubu

February 24, 2009

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A quick update: We’re in Gyeongju, one of the larger cities in South Gyeongsan Province, and a major center of Korean history, as it was the capital of the Shilla Dynasty.  People throw the word Shilla around like it was yesterday, and South Korean identity is tied strongly to the scientific and artistic achievements of that era, but the dynasty lasted from 668-918 A.D.  This is a very old country.

Diane’s family spent a lot of time here while she was growing up, and so we’re using the city as a base to explore the southeastern coast.  We spent a day and a half in Jeonju, in North Jeolla Province (about which I have a lot more to say in future posts), and would have liked to spend more time in Jeolla-do in general, but we couldn’t figure out an itinerary that wouldn’t have involved driving nearly all day between the southwest and southeast corners.  In any case, I wouldn’t give up any of the meals we’ve had so far in Gyeonsannam-do.

I’ve divided them up into three posts that follow.

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Our first meal in Gyeongju was 순두부찌개, sundubu-jjigae. This is one of my favorite things to eat, one of the foods I start to crave if I haven’t had Korean food in awhile.  It’s usually made with a clam broth, spiced to the gills with red pepper, and filled with a very soft, fresh bean curd, one step before becoming full-fledged tofu.  We chose to eat at a restaurant called 맷돌순두부, Mehtdolsundubu, but the whole area was crawling with sundubu restaurants.  Koreans really love trends, and food trends especially.  Clearly, one person had had a bright idea to sell sundubu in this area, and everyone had followed suit.

I couldn’t really blame their entrepreneurial spirit, though.  The bean curd was especially fresh, almost closer to 비지, biji, a soybean puree, than soybean curd.  I’m not sure how and why this locality became known for its sundubu-jjigae, but its proximity to the ocean probably helped the clams and the clam broth taste clean and clear.

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And I got to try 빈대장아찌, bindaejangajji, a strong-tasting fish, like anchovies on steroids, pickled with burning hot green peppers, which is what you see here in this little jar.