Archive for the ‘Bulgogi’ Category

Last 36 hours in Jeolla-do

January 5, 2010

Photo by Diane Choo

Our last days in Jeollado were quiet.  From our serene patjuk in the mountains, we drove to Gwangyang where we had the city’s namesake “Gwangyang bulgogi” at 시내식당, Shinae Shikdang, which translates as “City Restaurant.”  The next morning, Randall, Carolyn and I wandered the alleys around the hotel and ended up eating pork bone soup for breakfast.  By lunchtime, we were in Namwon, where we had bulgogi jeongol, a big hotpot of vegetables and thinly sliced sirloin.  We made a quick stop in Sunchang, home of the best gochujang or red chile paste in Korea, where I bought a few things to hide in my suitcase going back to NY.

Everything was good and fresh, but nothing was thrilling.  I was honestly disappointed.  I had come to Jeollado expecting something new.

Korea, or more accurately South Korea, has been made small by modernization. The different regions to which I’ve traveled this year — Jeolla-do, Gyeongsan-do, Gangwon-do — have had official boundaries since 1413.  Without modern transportation and telecommunications, the varying terrain and ensuing climate differences meant people in Jeolla-do ate distinctly different food from people in Gangwon-do.  Rice for people in Jeolla-do, potatoes for people in Gangwon-do.  But now, the predominance of something like soybean sprouts in Jeonju cooking is just lore, it’s not something that’s understood in the gut.  I’d heard southerners eat food, and especially kimchi, that’s spicier, saltier and fishier than people in Seoul, but I can’t say I noticed a really obvious difference.

Looking back months later, though, what we ate in Jeolla-do did have something in common.  If not flavor or technique or ingredient, there was certainly care in everything we ate.  Not just the gorgeous care that went into the Jeonju bibimbap, nor anything akin to the quiet, studied attention to aesthetic you find in Japan in even the lowliest ramen shop.  It was something coarser but still wholehearted, an offhand assumption that good food takes work and an equally offhand willingness to do the work.  The octopus you have to kill to eat, the pine nuts you have to extract from pinecones, the pine mushrooms you need to hunt in the wild, because you can never, ever cultivate these.

So, if I review those last things we ate in Jeolla-do, there was the “Gwangyang bulgogi,” where lean, tender meat is lightly seasoned before grilling, and highly prized because, as my mother told me, Gwangyang was famous for taking good care of its cows.

Photo by Diane Choo

Our daeji-gukbap or pork soup at a hole-in-the-wall had the unmistakable flavor of MSG (which was sort of soothing that fall morning) but also 4 kinds of kimchi.

In Namwon, at a restaurant we randomly picked in the rain, we found galchi-gui or hairtail fish fried perfectly and greaselessly.  (If you’ve never tried this, it tastes like salted gold, and a little precious, too, since there’s not much meat on the bones).

Also, a very plentiful bulgogi hotpot:

None of this food would look unfamiliar to someone who’s never left Seoul, and the skeptic in me scoffs at the romantic in me that wants Jeolla-do food to be obviously different.  But even if it is not, if Koreans all over the country and the world work for their food, that’s not such a bad finding either.  I’m grateful to Jeolla-do for making it more obvious to me.

시내식당, Shinae Shikdang, Jeonnam Gwangyang, 061-763-0360

미마루, Mi Maru, Jeonbok Namwon, 063-635-1559


Bulgogi surprise

February 24, 2009


We rounded up our tour of the area around Busan with a stop in Unyang, a small town that has affixed its name to a particular style of 불고기, bulgogi, the marinated beef dish that is probably the most familiar Korean dish outside of Korea.  That’s probably because it’s what Koreans always feed foreigners—“Here, this won’t scare you!”

This might be why I’ve never found bulgogi very interesting.  I don’t eat a lot of red meat, but when I do, I like it unadulterated.  To add a lot of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger, scallions…those are great ingredients and all, but why would you do that to an honest piece of meat?

Unyang bulgogi didn’t completely change my opinion, but I admit I was impressed.  First, it didn’t look like any bulgogi I’d ever had before.  The meat had been chopped and then shaped into a giant patty.  Second, the patty allowed it to be cooked straight on a grill on top of some good-smelling wood charcoal.  The kind of bulgogi I’ve had needs to be cooked on a brazier or stone grill, where juices can collect somewhere.  There are few meats that do not benefit from wood charcoal.  Third, the meat wasn’t too tender!  I know people will disagree with me, but I really like my meat to have some chew, and this meat had flavor and texture.


It also was just nice to remember how much I like the Korean way of eating meat after eating so much seafood.  Whenever you’re grilling meat, you should put some fresh lettuce, perilla leaves if you have it, maybe even mizuna or other bitter greens.  Each person should get a dish of scallion salad, dressed in tangy vinaigrette.  There should be plenty of garlic, fresh green peppers, and ssamjang, the sauce of red pepper and soybean paste that adds so much when you wrap a piece of meat in lettuce.  This restaurant also put out a dish of very thinly sliced Korean radish, slightly pickled, which you could also wrap around your meat.  I don’t like my meat adulterated, but I do like to eat it in combination with foods that are fresh, crisp, and pungent.


I probably should have stopped eating then, but I couldn’t resist a bowl of somyeon noodles, cooked in a light anchovy broth with that awesome nutty smell of toasted sesame seeds.

Isn’t it slightly scandalous that tomorrow, we’re eating again?