The older I get, the more intensely Korean I feel. For years, I could go months without eating kimchi. Now, something in my DNA cries out for it week after week. I’ve also started to feel more nationalistic, very proud and sometimes defensive, especially about our food. When someone says Korean food smells bad, I feel this little kid urge to spit back, “Oh yeah? You smell bad!”
So it hurts me a little to admit there are Korean foods I do not like, and even more, to admit that they smell bad. I wouldn’t tell you, except I want always to be truthful in everything I write, whether it’s a cookbook or a story. And this way, when I tell you that acorn jelly, in all its slippery glory, is really delicious, you’ll know that you can trust me.
Diane and I had dinner a few nights ago with our parents at 두레, Doorei, a lovely, traditional restaurant in Insa-dong, a lovely, traditional neighborhood. Despite the title of this post, I have no complaints about the restaurant. Other than the three dishes described below, I liked their food very much, like the salty and chewy dried 민어, mineo, or croaker fish (photo above). And even including these three dishes, the kitchen was cooking with an honest and quiet restraint. The flavors were clean and clear, whether they were bellflower roots in a spicy sauce or perfectly cooked rice dotted with dark beans.
I should also note that we ordered foods we were pretty sure we wouldn’t like. I don’t believe in extreme eating (I hate when Westerners brag about eating “gross” things that are totally normal to other people) but I do believe in education.
홍어찜, hongeojjim, was very educational (photo above). Hongeojjim is fermented steamed skate fish. In other words, fish that’s been allowed to rot before it is oh so delicately steamed. A specialty of the southern region of Jeollo-do, it’s beloved by the people there. Most Koreans outside the area won’t eat it. Koreans are obviously big fans of fermentation—kimchi, doenjang, booze—so that tells you something about how fermented this skate is.
At Doorei, the fish came hidden under a pile of blanched bean sprouts and wild parsley. It was very, very soft, gray and slippery, almost disintegrating as my mom cut it into pieces with a big spoon. It tasted like ammonia you can chew.
I’d eaten a couple of bites, trying to ignore the feeling of being assaulted in the back of my throat, when my father finally noticed I wasn’t dipping it in the spicy red pepper sauce. “You’re supposed to eat it with this!” It helped mask the flavor, but not enough for me to want to keep eating it. Our parents assured us that this wasn’t even that bad. There was skate out there that was way more fermented.
The night of fermentation continued. We’d chosen this restaurant because it’s well-known for its 청국장찌개, cheonggukjang-jjigae, also a regional specialty, but from Chungchong-do, where my father is from. Cheonggukjang is a fermented soybean paste, like doenjang, which is a pantry staple for Koreans all over Korea. Cheonggukjang-jjigae is a stew made from that soybean paste (photo above). But that’s pretty much where the comparison ends, at least for me. Doenjang is earthy. Cheonggukjang is muddy. Doenjang is delicious. Cheonggukjang is not.
Others say that doenjang cheonggukjang is like Japanese natto, which sounds right to me since I don’t like natto either. But I can appreciate that the level of fermentation in hongeojjim and cheonggukjang, like natto, is an acquired taste, and that both dishes might be quite delicious and delightful to other people. There are people out there who like Vegemite! And I myself am very, very fond of super-stinky blue cheese.
But the last thing we had, I don’t think even Koreans would say that they like it. At the end of our meal, we were given complimentary cups of 삼지구엽차, samjiguyeopcha, a medicinal tea that translates into “tea made of 3 branches, 9 leaves.” That’s exactly what it tasted like, barks and leaves. Koreans have always believed that the food you eat is the most important medicine you can put in your body. This was a very literal interpretation of that idea.
But all in all, it was a wonderful meal. Diane and I learned so much more about what Koreans eat and drink. And lest I feel any waning of love for my native country, as we were drinking our tea, the men next door began a drunken yet enthusiastic rendition of the national anthem: “May God bless our country for ten thousand years and years!”