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Discover true Korean cuisine in its south

Trade in the city eats of Seoul for rural Jeollanam-do, where the heart of Korean cuisine lies.

By any stretch of the tongue, Jeollanam-do is a real twister. But when it comes to food, nothing could be more straightforward – because when it comes to Korean culinary history, this southernmost province is where it all began.

Jeollanam-do, or South Jeolla Province, is the Korean equivalent of Provence, France, or Naples, Italy – all food capitals in their own right. They sit on the southern tips of their respective nations – and enjoy warm summers, relatively pleasant winters, and terroir just brimming with nutrition. In Jeollanam-do, mountains, forests, rivers and seas conspire to create nature’s perfect algorithm for bountiful produce.

Sure, some of that good stuff might find its way to a restaurant or store near you in trendy Seoul. But – it would be more expensive, not as pristine as at its source, and hard to find. If you’re banking on locating the pure goodness of Maesaengi seaweed at Lotte Mart, or dried croaker fish at Shinsegae that look as plump as the ones drying in the salty sea air of Yeonggwang, put your money somewhere else.

korean food map

A map of the Korean South’s cuisines.
Illustration: Mushroomhead

But if you want to experience the true heart of Korean cuisine, then leave the shiny bright lights of the capital and venture far south, where life is a little more rural but not backward, and the food rough and rustic but heartwarmingly real.

Jangheung

Our partner on this food trail is Ryu Tae Hwan, chef-owner of Ryunique in Seoul – possibly the only deliberately (and stubbornly) locavore-centric fine dining restaurant in the city. Since he decided to devote himself to home-grown produce for his innovative, modern European-inspired cuisine, he has trawled the Korean peninsula from one end to another in search of artisanal growers who tirelessly tend both land and sea for their precious harvests.  It was just a year ago that Chef Ryu inducted us into the world of Korean produce, with an intensive road trip east to Bonghwa where freshly picked pine (Matsutake) mushrooms and Hanyakwoo – the famous local beef from cattle fed on medicinal herbs – had us at ‘Annyeonghasayo’.

This year, he promised, he would take us to the ‘Deep South’ – specifically Jangheung-gun, the epicenter of good things to eat in Jeollanam-do.

It’s a hard five-hour drive from Seoul to Jangheung, and if crossing the Han River to Gangnam has been your only geographic exposure to South Korea, you’re in for a whole new experience. Once you get off the highway, the scenery changes as mountain vistas replace hard concrete and large tracts of farmland seem to stretch forever. It’s not all countryside and small towns – you will pass by Gwangju, the sixth largest city in South Korea and possibly the best fed, given that it’s the distribution point for all the farms in the South Jeolla region. It’s also the birthplace of Korean democracy and boasts a tranquil bamboo forest – but there is no time to stop by because we are already very late for lunch.

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Beef and ayu Ryunique

Beef and ayu dish from Ryunique.

Samhap cuisine

Jeollanam-do is the home of samhap – which roughly translates into a combination of three ingredients. In its pure form, samhap refers to a meal of pork belly, kimchi and hongeo – fermented skate that reeks of ammonia but is a much-loved delicacy (if you can get past the pong, it actually has a mild, mellow flavour and smooth, resilient texture). But we can’t get past the smell, so enjoying it is moot.

The Jangheung version of samhap is less daunting and a highly enjoyable combination of our favourite things: hanwoo, shiitake mushrooms and pen shell clams – the stars of local produce.

It’s partly a marketing gimmick but it works well, says Chef Ryu. About 15 years ago, vendors at Jangheung’s Toyo market got together to think up a way to raise the profile of their produce. A bright spark came up with the idea of grilling slices of beef, and pairing them with boiled shiitake and pen shell together in one bite. They even created a special dome-shaped grill pan with an attached ‘moat’ to represent the mountain, land and sea. It worked. People would come by the market to buy the ingredients and head to one of the many restaurants to enjoy them.

While that’s an option, the best experience for this can be had at the popular Manna Grilled Beef Ribs (만나식당) – a no-frills bustling joint that serves a mega, unforgettable spread.

It serves chuck flap tail – an expensive but superb cut that’s finely veined with fat, expertly cut and spread out, accordion-like, onto the charcoal-fired grill. Slices of thick, meaty mushrooms and scallop-like clam (but with a firmer bite) are layered in the clear broth surrounding the hanwoo. When done, the tender, fatty but still beefy hanwoo is an amazing mouthful with the silken textured mushroom and the clean brininess of clam.

When all the ingredients are polished off, chewy noodles are slam dunked into the broth which has soaked up all the juices of beef, mushrooms and clams. Imagine. Other dishes are worth adding on, notably a comforting spicy kimchi broth Yukgaejang – with cubes of ox blood (instead of conventional pig or chicken blood) which are a bit out of our comfort zone; and excellent Yuki – clean-tasting beef tartare mixed with gochujang, pear and a raw egg yolk.

 

Farm specials

In Jangheung, the running joke is that the population is 30,000 but they’re outnumbered by cows, thanks to its flourishing hanwoo industry. Pristine land and dedicated farmers make local hanwoo highly prized, thanks to its concentration of essential fatty acids compared to beef from other parts of South Korea.

Jangheung can also claim exclusivity as the largest producer of pyogo or shiitake mushrooms, which would blow their Japanese counterparts away with their beautifully formed, crinkly patterned crowns and meaty, dense flesh. A visit to a mushroom farm is a must, if only for the wave of Zen tranquility that engulfs you as you trek through this forest landscape. For as far as you can see, clusters of identical short tree stumps criss-crossing each other form a silent army of wooden soldiers, as tall, thin pine trees stand on sentry duty.

Each log is injected with spores that will blossom into the prized organic fungi that earn Geographic Indication System (GIS) status – the Korean version of AOC or DOC accreditation (for France and Italy).

A combination of good weather, mountain altitude and soil is the success formula for mushroom farming, but climate change hasn’t skipped Jangheung, says Kim Pyeong Gil of Seung Ju Mushroom Farm. In his 30 years of farming, he’s seen harvesting periods drop from five times a year to an inconsistent three to five times. Even the logs that the mushrooms sprout on have to be replaced every five years, compared to 10 years in the old days.

Incidentally, Geographic Indication System may sound like a mouthful, but it’s a serious certification of provenance and quality that extends to the produce from this region. Pen shell clams rank high on this list too. You know how important it is because a giant replica of the flat, fan-shaped mollusc stands tall at Sumunpo beach, where they’re hauled in from the waters beyond. Sushi aficionados will recognise them as tairagai – the firm scallop-like discs that are usually grilled and sandwiched in nori.

(Related: How Michelin-starred Meta’s chef Sun Kim masterfully blends Korean and Western cuisines)

 

  • Seaweed sushi from Ryunique.

 

Market treats

If you want to play tourist in Jangheung, there’s plenty by way of nature trails and scenic climbs – of note is Borimsa temple on Ganji mountain that’s one of the oldest in the country and boasts a divine view of the surrounding mountains and sea. But the always-hungry should head for Toyo Market to enjoy the spoils of the region and some home-spun traditional favourites such as Maesaengi seaweed or Musan laver, harvested locally and processed organically.

Maesaengi seaweed soup is a robust, deep-green breakfast favourite served at one of the eateries there (토정황손두꺼비국밥).

Use your chopsticks to lift up curtains of this slippery seaweed bathed in a very light, clean broth of oysters and perhaps anchovies. It’s served very simply with a bowl of rice, kimchi and some other vegetable banchan. It’s chock full of vitamins and minerals, which is good reason to slurp it all up.

Another place to check out is Three Generation Beef Bone Soup (삼대곰탕집), where the signature dish is Gomtang – the milky white beef broth made from boiling down marrow bones for hours, served with a chunk of melting-soft radish and thin slices of beef from the brewing stock. It may be a little mild for those used to hearty stocks, but it has a clean flavour plus the bone-building goodness of the long-cooked broth.

 

Wando

Don’t let the rural charms of Jangheung and the rest of Jeollanam-do fool you with their country manners and seemingly modest lifestyles. Many of the farmers and traders are rich, and especially so in the abalone territory of Wando island. “After work, they get into their Porsches,” notes Chef Ryu wryly as he examines a slithery, palm sized specimen that writhes in its shell along with several thousand others in the processing plant of JS Korea, an abalone wholesaler which apparently even supplies live baby abalones to Sheng Siong.

The industry thrives thanks to government investment in building up the agriculture of the region, adds Chef Ryu, hence the quality of the produce and the subsequent GIS certification. Here in Wando, the abalones are fat and healthy from a rich diet of wakame and kelp that grow in the clean waters where the shellfish are harvested. It takes about five years to reach the size of your palm – the company also exports to Japan, Vietnam or other markets, while 70 per cent of their production stays in South Korea.

Wando is also home to gizzard shad or kohada in Japanese – which we’d previously known only as the vinegary cured fish in sushi joints. At Maryang Raw Fish Town (마량회타운), you get it sliced in thin strips sashimi-style or grilled whole and polished off with rice and assorted banchan.

abalones-grilled gizzard shad

Abalones and grilled gizzard shad.

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Haenam

Besides having the highest fertility rate in South Korea, Haenam county is where farmers get down and dirty to till the rich soil to produce some of the country’s best sweet potatoes and cabbages. A mountain of freshly harvested sweet potatoes emit a delicate sweet fragrance when we step into a farm’s storage barn – a mixture of natural floral scent of the roots and the earthiness of red clay that they grow in.

The red clay is specially brought in from the nearby mountains to enrich the grounds and grow the potatoes, according to the shy farm owner who still works the land with minimal technology – a really beat-up tractor seems to be his only mechanical friend.

The elderly farmer tells us that the red clay has to be replaced every three years, a mighty daunting exercise from looking at his land. It’s entirely possible that he changes out of his farm clothes and drives home in an SUV, but considering how he contributes to the quality of our dining experience, we say he deserves it.

 

Muan

The mud flats of Muan are the reason for the county’s reputation as octopus dining central, with an entire area – literally Muan Octopus Street – devoted to the tentacled delicacy. Bizarre food videos of people swallowing live octopus while trying to keep them from ripping their throats inside out may well have originated here. The street is literally lined with almost identical shops with outdoor tanks holding the creatures in every size imaginable.

Granted, it’s a test of your squeamish and animal rights limits to tuck into beef tartare covered in a bed of still wriggling chopped octopus bits, or watching your server wrestle some live octopus out of a bowl and into a bubbling pot of hot soup.

Octopus twirled around a skewer and grilled in sauce do not move and are easier to gnaw. But whichever way you pick your cephalopod, it’s one of those experiences you just have to try once. But if not, Muan is also good for onions – safe, painless, and very sweet.

 

Yeonggwang

Next to Spam, gulbi or dried yellow croaker is one of the most coveted gifts you can present to a Korean, especially during Chuseok, a major harvest festival.  The best of it comes from Yeonggwang county, where you can see an entire stretch of shops along the waterfront with multiple stands holding long lines of different-sized fish strung up and drying in the briny sea air.

dried croaker Yeonggwang

Dried croaker in Yeonggwang.

A string of 10 small gulbi can set you back US$100. If that’s too rich for your blood, you can have an equally tasty meal of buche – which is a slightly bigger fish. At Seagull Restaurant (갈매기 식당) you get a crash course on real Korean cuisine in all its wild and wacky permutations. There’s savoury spicy croaker soup, and grilled buche which you eat with rice mixed with cold green tea.

Jeollanam-do is also a banchan paradise and here you get the works, including raw marinated crab with roe that’s so fresh and full of complex umami, fermented fish and unidentified seafood in deep red seasonings, and so on. The crab costs a bomb to eat in Seoul but here it’s just part of the free banchan. Although as Chef Ryu puts it, “You can ask for more crab but maybe after two times they will get angry.” But whatever it is, it’s an eye-opening introduction to the amazing variety that makes up Korean cuisine and nothing you can ever replicate in Seoul.

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City cuisine

Except at Ryunique, where the lush raw ingredients are translated into elegant fine dining under Chef Ryu’s hands. His tasting menu includes highlights such as a beef and mushroom broth served with Jangheung’s shiitake mushrooms and abalone from Jindo, not far from Wando; and raw beef is layered with fillets of sweet fish and rolled around Korean pear. With every ingredient and region he discovers, a new creation results. With so much material to work with, Chef Ryu has even documented his travels and recipes in a YouTube video series, Voice of a Chef.

As a champion of local produce, he doesn’t just open diners’ eyes to the wide-ranging potential of local produce in modern fine dining, he also opens a window to a whole new food culture once unknown to foreigners – who now have every reason to explore it even further.

 

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo credit: Korea Tourism Organisation