I disembark in Seoul with typically Italian lack of preparation, imprudently confident in my only previous relevant experience: dinner in a Korean restaurant in San Francisco during Carlo Petrini’s tour of America in 2000, when the then local convivium leader Koohan Paik. Koohan, who is half- Korean, insisted that the snail’s supreme leader taste some of the flavors of his homeland.When I arrive in Seoul all I can remember is that in the San Francisco restaurant every table had a circular fire in the center on which a convex grill was placed. Each table was provided with a dish of pieces of raw chicken and beef which the diners cooked themselves on the little grill (you can’t imagine the consequent smoke), along with a multitude of mostly vegetable-based side dishes. I knew this wasn’t enough – a little like claiming to know about Italian cooking after eating a pizza in Brooklyn – but I tell myself that as I know nothing, my impression of Korean cuisine will benefit from the element of surprise thus enabling me to form a spontaneous and more sincere opinion without preconceptions.As I am only to visit the extreme south of the country, where western tourism is practically non-existent, I am reliably assured that it will be an ‘authentic’ experience, and I will only find ‘real’ Korean food.
I eat my first dinner in Masan (population 400,000), one of the most important cities in South Korea. I am taken to try what my trusted guide (Slow Food award panel-member Prof. Kim Jong Duk) insists is ‘the best ginseng chicken in town’. Although we have booked, we are kept waiting a long time. The Professor tells me that everyone in town loves this restaurant, and waiting is part of the ritual. Throughout the trip we will sit in the oriental way, on the ground, our shoes waiting outside the door. Inside it is stiflingly hot, everyone sweating over steaming bowls of chicken soup. This stewed chicken is unusually tiny (and tender) and floats in a boiling watery broth flavored with garlic and ginseng. This is served in metal bowls along with a succession of accompanying dishes, which, I am promptly informed, is the custom in Korea: there is always rice, which is shorter than Thai rice and more similar to the Italian ‘arborio’ type, then raw and cooked vegetables, seaweed…. At least two bowls contain the Korean national dish, kimchi: fermented vegetables in a very spicy sauce made from garlic and chili pepper. At the end of the meal, we drink a ginseng liqueur, a special variety of soju, a rice spirit (a less prestigious ‘home-brewed’ version also exists), which is about 20° proof and, unlike sake, is drunk cold. The best, according to Professor Kim, is Jinro; ‘the Japanese love it’ he tells me. It is very hot inside and after a while I begin to feel dizzy. At the end of the meal we are brought a cup of (unusually) cold green tea. We spend 8,000 won each, less than 30 euros, for a simple, scalding hot, good dinner.
We move on to Nam Hae, one of the 2000 Korean islands, situated on the northern side of Hallyo Maritime Park, and a favorite destination of Korean tourists. We eat on a sunny terrace overlooking the sea, near the bridge linking the island to the continent. The format is the same: a plate of hot soup accompanied by plenty of cold side dishes. The soup is called jaechub-kuk and contains a variety of small mollusks like clams (removed from their shells). Among the vegetables I recognize okra, a kind of green pepper I had tasted at the Bloody Mary in New Orleans. Worthy of mention is the garlic, used in abundance, sometimes ‘neat’, and to finish, a glass of ginseng liqueur. In the evening we dine with representatives of the local government, in the private room of one of the best restaurants on the island. This time we eat sashimi, Japanese-style raw fish, which I am told is not everyday fare but is usually reserved for the wealthy or for special occasions. Shrimp, crabs, sea bream and other fish I don’t recognize: the dishes succeed one another continuously, and are all delicious. I learn that Korean hospitality is as delightful as it is strict: the quantities are proportionate to the official nature of the meal – and I must do it justice. The side dishes include the now-familiar kimchi, and I am impressed by the sweet potatoes, boiled and cut into slices, with thin purple skin, which are just as good eaten plain. Also the dark, steamed garlic (Nam Hae is renowned for its garlic) which is eaten just as it is – incredibly there are no consequences for the digestion in the night. We drink soju again and Korean beer, Hite, as light as Mexican Corona.
Prof. Kim even drinks soup for breakfast with the usual dozen or so micro-dishes, some of which are spicy, but I decline to follow suit, which puzzles him slightly. At lunch we are the guests of Mr Rew, a friend of Professor Kim, and as rich as he is hospitable. Mr Rew makes his living from the building trade but his greatest passion is art. One of his private collections of ancient utensils, pots and prints has become the Arirang museum, the most important musuem in Nam Hae. He takes us to eat near the island’s baseball stadium, in a little restaurant on the sea. Here we sample the unusual and delicious water sahimi. In this Korean version of the dish, a large flat fish like sea bream, which they call todari, lies immersed in a cold red soup, with little floating ‘icebergs’ giving the dish the appearance of Andalusian gazpacho. The spicy sauce is made of red and green peppers, garlic, sesame and chili pepper (and a few other spices I couldn’t identify). If you wish you can make the dish more substantial by plunging a wad of noodles into it, to create a kind of frozen eastern version of spaghetti with fish sauce.
The restaurant where we have dinner is called Mi Dam, which means ‘history of taste’. Here we try the junbok juk, a rice-based dish (unusually gooey and tempting, reminding me a little of the Greek ‘risolat’ found at supermarkets, and a little kuzu powder melted in a hot pan, a homeopathic remedy for the voice) with shelled mollusks, which is really remarkable. Among the second courses are very tasty chunks of marinated beef. The dessert (the first we have tasted) is also made of rice, this time plain and milky. It is our last evening on the island and to celebrate, my hosts take me to a western-style pub to chink our beer bottles together in a toast.
At lunchtime we are in Hadong near Hwagae, in the south west of the country – the green tea area. We stop along the way in a very rustic-looking restaurant along the clear Jirisan river, and eat outside, the river flowing behind us. Once again we go for raw fish: this time we try the ayu, a silver fish one and a half hand spans long, from the salmon family. It arrives on a dish, cut into small chunks, complete with skin, fins, and so on, unlike the traditional Japanese serving style. I try to imitate Professor Kim as he wraps the mouthfuls of fish in fleshy perilla leaves (very tasty), making them into rolls with thin slices of garlic and spicy sauce. The consistency of the ayu does not appeal to me in this version, but Professor Kim clearly likes it very much, since he finishes my portion too.
We have dinner in Gwanju, the main city of south-western Korea. This is my last dinner with the professor, and for this occasion he has invited his friend, Professor Jung Keun Sik, a colleague who teaches sociology at the local university. The two professors order a Korean barbecue which reminds me of San Francisco: a steel grill is brought to the table and lit, and we are all given a plate of tender chunks of beef to cook and turn over using chopsticks, which in Korea are made of metal and are always accompanied by a soup spoon. A smaller dish holds fresh raw shrimp, also to be cooked on the grill. This type of dinner is called Jung-kiun-sik and differs from the more traditional Korean barbecue (pulgogi) in that the meat is marinated in soy sauce before being cooked. It is an excellent dinner. The side dishes include a velvety pumpkin soup, lotus roots with sesame seeds and green seaweed, tasima, which is tender and very tasty. The professors explain that seaweed is a favorite food of the Koreans, with extraordinary properties and is especially good for children. There are four main types: kim, which is used for sushi, mi yok, tasima and tot.
The evening is ending and we raise our glasses of soju in an affectionate farewell. This is my last evening in the south. Tomorrow I will be in Seoul, and the day after I return to Italy.
When you arrive in a nation like South Korea, practically without tourism and far removed from us in distance and in customs, with all the ensuing problems of language and jet lag, (plus the fact that Korean cuisine is rich, fiery and full of ‘strange’ ingredients, and there are dozens of courses with each meal) you might find that you lose control of the situation and fail provide the detailed enogastronomic notes required by the role and mission undertaken.
Korean cuisine has not been as widely adopted in the world as its Japanese and Chinese counterparts and does not have exportable flagship dishes like the Tex-Mex burrito or Middle Eastern kebabs. But it exists and is astonishing with its unique, proudly unusual flavors, moving freely from meat to fish, cooked to raw, and finding its greatest expression in spicy foods and placing many different flavors alongside each other (almost simultaneously, making the table appear chaotically full) with equal dignity. In neurotic eaters (like me, I have to admit!) this can bring about ‘buffet anxiety’, when you just don’t know what to eat first. But it is a pleasant anxiety, and worth the trip – and also perhaps, worth the description.
Stefano Sardo is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office
Photo by Stefano Sardo
Translated by Ailsa Wood