Adventures in 전라도

19 May

It began as a simple quest to find and consume #11 on The List:  the dreaded 홍어 (hong uh).  Easy enough.  There are plenty of restaurants that serve the dish right here in Seoul and I have friends that like to watch me gag and would gladly capture the spectacle on film.  But simplicity is boring plus the stories I had heard about this food intrigued me (and to be honest, scared me) too much to settle on just any old neighborhood restaurant.  I had to go to the source.  전라도 (Jeolla-do) – the region of Korea best known for this beast – is where I would make my stand.  Little did I know this would become an epic tale full of interesting characters and unforeseen challenges.

I finished work early on a Friday evening and met my courageous companion Solyee at the bus station for the three hour trip to Gwangju, one of the biggest cities in Jeolla-do.  Gwangju would be our base of operations but we also had two side trips to make, both of which would include culinary exploration, as well as a bit of sightseeing.  This was my first trip to Jeolla-do and Solyee’s knowledge of the area was limited so we flipped through my travel book and searched online to hammer out details as we rode.  Still, I couldn’t get my mind off of the main event.

홍어 – fermented skate – is a dish that I had been putting off for a while.  If fermented skate doesn’t sound tempting enough, what makes 홍어 distinctive is that as the fish ferments, its uric acid passes through its skin and acts as a sort of marinade throughout the fermenting process.  This gives the fish a strong, often overpowering ammonia smell and flavor.  Delightful.  I was excited but legitimately afraid of the challenge.  Kind of the Korean equivalent of seeing a donkey show in Mexico.  You don’t reeeally want to do it, but you hear so much about it that you feel obligated despite the distinct possibility of vomiting in public.  This is what ran through my head throughout the bus ride.

One amusing thing I’ve noticed during my time here is that many Koreans aren’t at all accustomed to long road trips.  It’s a small country.  You could probably circle the whole thing on one tank of gas in an Expedition.  Hence, a three hour trip – even with a 15 minute pit stop in the middle – is like an endurance trial for some Koreans.  Solyee is one of those.  While an otherwise excellent travel and eating companion, one would think I had just marched her along the Trail of Tears as we neared the bus station.

“Oh my God! I want to die! Let me off of this bus!” was my soundtrack for the last 10 minutes of the ride.  Needless to say I was as thrilled as she was when we got there.

We still had only a vague idea of what to eat that first night.  It was late and we weren’t sure what was open, so we decided the best thing to do would be to ask a local – in this case, our cab driver.  And by God what a good decision that was.  It’s unusual to find a truly friendly cab driver, but unheard of to find one who will play chauffeur/travel guide for an entire weekend all while happily regaling you with stories of his dubious pre-taxi driving career choices.  But indeed that’s what we found and as he prefers anonymity (perhaps due to his aforementioned dubious past), I will refer to him from here on as “Mr. England.”

Mr. England is actually a Jim Henson creation

“Where to?” Mr. England asked us.

“Well,” Solyee said “we’re not really sure.  Where’s the best place to eat right now?”

After a brief explanation of what we were doing in Gwangju, Mr. England knew just the place to take us:  a 백숙 (baik suk) restaurant.  It wasn’t a dish either of us had ever heard of, but he raved about it and said it was a must-eat.  It’s essentially a whole chicken boiled with garlic and salt and served with a rice porridge.  As you tear off pieces of chicken, you mix the it in the porridge with a smattering of spices and sauces like pepper paste, salt and ground pepper.  3-year-old kimchi is also a standard side dish.  What really sold me however, was the appetizer.  Before the chef boils the chicken she slices off several pieces of breast and gizzard and serves them raw.  Yes, that’s right.  Raw chicken breast and ass.  Tally ho, Mr. England.

It turned out the restaurant was halfway up a dimly lit and sparsely developed mountain.  As we wound our way up, we began to question Mr. England’s intentions.  He had spent the last 15 minutes telling us about his former illegal gambling operations so scamming some out-of-towners on a wild goose chase didn’t seem like much of a stretch for him.  And even if there really was a restaurant up there, how the hell were we going to get back down after he drove off?  I started to get a bit antsy but sure enough, we found the place still open.  To assure us that he would come back, Mr. England gave us his phone number and didn’t charge us for the ride up.

I wondered at first how a restaurant so deep in the back ass of nowhere could stay open.  It wasn’t easy to get to and surely wouldn’t get a whole lot of passersby.  The few other restaurants nearby had already shut down for the night, but ours had a couple of guests half way through their meal when we walked in.  The restaurant had only two employees:  one woman to do all of the cooking and serving and one fur ball puppy to do all of the looking adorable.

Solyee and her new BFF

The woman was a bit gruff, though I suppose I would be too if I had to clean and cook an entire chicken at midnight.  She brought out our side dishes and chicken sushi first.  I hadn’t really thought too carefully about the consequences of eating raw chicken during the cab ride.  “Hell yeah, I’m gonna do it,” I had insisted.  But as I stared at the red and pink hunks of flesh in front of me, visions of salmonella and hospital visits began popping up in my head.

Breast on top. Gizzards on bottom.

I’m not one to back down from a challenge, though.  My courage bolstered by Jeolla-do’s maple soju, I went for it.  If the threat explosive bowel movements and possible death aren’t enough to deter you from eating raw chicken, the taste and texture should be.  The breast was easy enough to chew but the gizzards were like leather.  Cold, dark pink leather.  My jaw actually got tired from chewing. The flavor wasn’t as off-putting as I had expected but I cannot fathom why anyone would want this put in front of them.  Unless of course every table has someone gunning to prove their manliness like me.

Next came the main dish which more than made up for the atrocity that I had just consumed.  It’s a simple dish:  very basic seasonings and not much in the way of presentation.  The salt and garlic combined for some incredible flavor, though.

The flavors were reminiscent of chicken noodle soup, so it’s no surprise that this is a go-to cold remedy for many Koreans.  As we ate, Solyee told me about a university friend whose foreign professor was out with the flu.  For some brownie points, the friend delivered a big pot of 백숙 to her professor.  After he got better, his wife called the girl, got the recipe and oddly enough the girl wound up with an A in the course.  The girl may have indeed been an excellent student and the soup may not have had any bearing on her final marks.  But I can say that any students who bring me this soup can talk in class, set off bottle rockets and flunk every test I give them.  An A will still be coming their way.

As our meal wound down we called Mr. England and he came right back to get us.  He chatted away as he drove us back down the mountain and offered us a few more tips for the rest of our trip.  When we pulled up to the hotel, we damn near had to hold Mr. England down and stuff money in his pocket like some kind of reverse muggers because he insisted that the ride to and from the restaurant was only 10,000 won – it should have been more than double that.  He finally took some money and told us to call him the next day.

The sun rose on day 2 and magically, I hadn’t soiled the bed which after consuming raw chicken is a victory in my book.  So with a spring in my step, it was off to the bus station for our first side trip to Damyang, a small city just outside of Gwangju.  Damyang is known primarily for two things:  its bamboo forest and a dish called 떡갈비 (dduk galbi).   떡갈비 is grilled minced beef patties and, not surprisingly, Mr. England knew just the place for us to try and had told us about it the night before.  He couldn’t describe the location, but insisted that anyone we asked would be able to direct us there.

We pulled up to the station around lunch time and hit the street in search of our first meal of the day.  Just as Mr. England had said, the first person we asked was able to point us to the restaurant – 신식당 (sin sik dang) – on a side street just a few blocks away.  We were psyched when we found the place; the parking lot was full and signs on the building boasted that they had been in operation for over 40 years and featured on several Korean television programs.  We weren’t so psyched however when we got inside and found that orders of 떡갈비 were about 30,000 won (close to $30) per person.  Oh well.  It was vacation and this was the dish that, with a little help from the bamboo forest, put the city on the map.

We soon learned a valuable lesson.  When a city is known for two things and one of them is bamboo, you probably shouldn’t get too excited about the other thing.  Clearly the people of that city are easily pleased or else just grabbing at straws.  Don’t get me wrong, the dish was tasty and for about a third of the price I would gladly eat there again.  But after all the hype, 떡갈비 amounted to something like glorified meatloaf.

Momma Burkhalter's meatloaf is way better anyway


The bamboo forest was about as exciting as one might expect.  Bamboo.  Hills.  More bamboo.  A couple of traditional houses at one end of the park.  Bamboo again.  I’m not complaining, though.  It was definitely a nice to get out and walk around.  There were some drummers in traditional dress, as well as some highly energetic senior citizens tearing up the dance floor near the entrance.  The park also offered assorted bamboo flavored treats inside and just outside of the park. I went for the bamboo ice cream and bamboo 호떡 (ho dduk), a crispy pancake-like creation with a syrupy, brown sugar filling.  Both came highly recommended from one of the locals that I spoke with.

As it turns out, adding bamboo to ice cream and 호떡 is about as tasty as adding grass.  I suppose that’s what I get for asking a panda for food recommendations.  I’m glad they’re endangered.

As the sun started to go down, we made our way back to the bus station so we could get to Gwangju in time for our show down with 홍어.  Once again, Mr. England knew just the spot so we gave him a call from the bus station and hitched a ride to destiny.  Again, though, he forgot to set the meter and refused payment when we got there.

The restaurant was small but packed and as expected, reeked of ammonia.  I often get stares when I go into certain restaurants but this one trumped them all.  Like in the movies when the white guys walk into a black club and the music scratches to a halt as everyone turns to stare.  Still, I couldn’t wipe the silly grin off of my face as we took our seat in the dead center of the restaurant.

To be fair, this pic was taken post meal so they had stopped staring.

We ordered 홍어삼합 (hong uh sam ahp), the standard paring of hong uh and bo ssam (the steamed pork written about in my second post).  As we sat at the table waiting for our food, the stench continued to fill our nostrils, soak into our clothes and weaken our resolve to actually go through with this meal.  It felt like someone had doused a closet in cleaning fluids then locked us inside.  But with so many people eating and actually keeping the contents of their stomachs down, we held strong.

First came the sides: a spicy 홍어 and onion salad, a thick and bubbling 홍어 stew and raw 홍어 liver.  We tasted them in that order.  The salad wasn’t bad and we actually ordered seconds later on in the meal.  I wish I could say the same for the stew and the liver.  The former tasted like a steaming liquid fart.  Not a bad fart but a fart nonetheless.  The latter had perhaps the most disconcerting texture I have ever put in my mouth.  I expect a protein the have some amount of fortitude but the liver was creamy.  It melted in my mouth.  Mashed potatoes require more chewing.  The flavor wasn’t awful, it just felt vulgar.

홍어 liver

Next came the main dish.  It looked so innocent:  no stranger than any other raw fish I’ve eaten.  One close whiff however reminded us just how vile it was going to be.  Hesitation was only going to make things worse so we dove right in.

홍어 arranged to look like a skate fish.

We attacked the dark red blob at the front first.  This at one point was the nose of the skate and after sampling it I have deemed it not suitable for human consumption.  Next we moved on the flesh around the outside.  The proper technique for eating 홍어 is to actually bury it under other flavors.  Place a piece of bo ssam on top of the skate, then place a piece of kimchi on top of that, dip the pile into some sauce and eat it all in one bite.

Not surprisingly, the pork, kimchi and sauce do little to mask the flavor of the skate.  They manage to temporarily distract you, but the unfortunate thing is that 홍어 has a lot of cartilage and thus requires a hell of a lot of chewing.  The kimchi and pork get mashed up quite quickly and only the skate remains to assault your olfactory, this time from the inside.

The chewing process looks something like this.

And this.

As we ate the pieces seemed to regenerate like the heads of a hydra.  Each piece taunted us from there on the plate, daring us to take another bite.  But we had come all that way and we’d be damned if we weren’t going to finish it.  One guy at a table near us kept looking over and giving us the thumbs up as we forced it down bite by bite.  It didn’t go down easy but we soldiered on until eventually, mercifully, only we remained and the 홍어 was vanquished.

All in all though, 홍어 didn’t quite live up to its reputation.  People had laughed at me when I told them of my Jeolla-do plans.  Andrew Zimmern could barely stomach the stuff.  I was expecting something far more hideous.  It’s unpleasant, no doubt; possibly one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten.  But like all bullies and boogie men, the anticipation was far worse that the actual confrontation.

On day three, we headed back to the bus station for one final side trip.  This time we were off to 보성 (bo sung) for a tour of the city’s green tea plantation, its one and only attraction.  We spent the afternoon touring the plantation and despite the plants actually being brown due to bad weather, it was pretty damn impressive.   I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip from Seoul to see it, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the region.

Just a small section of the plantation

Like the bamboo forest, the tea plantation offered a number of tea-infused foods.  Unlike bamboo, green tea can be enjoyed by more than just pandas.  The shops and restaurants around the park had everything from green tea cookies to green tea noodles to green tea pork.  We decided to leave the pork for the other visitors and sipped on green tea milk shakes as we walked around.

After a couple of hours in 보성 we grabbed a bus back to Seoul, eager for a familiar dinner sans ammonia.  Despite the beating that our noses and taste buds took there, I’m still convinced that Jeolla-do is deserving of its title as the food mecca of Korea.  The people are genuinely proud of their food and excited to share it.  Some will happily go out of their way to help a stranger in search of a unique, tasty dish.  That intense pride is what really makes the region special;  Mr. England, the people in Damyang, the guy grinning and giving us the thumbs up through our whole meal.  It’s not about bamboo forests.  You can’t understand the people or the region by walking around a tea plantation.  You have to jump in and eat the way they eat – even those dubious, slightly dangerous ones.  I won’t be having 홍어 again and I’ve had enough raw chicken to last me a lifetime, but I look forward to my next trip to Jeolla-do to see what else the region has to offer.

8 Responses to “Adventures in 전라도”

  1. Your mother May 19, 2011 at 2:27 am #

    Thanks for the pictures in this post. Loved your t-shirt, Graham. The puppy was, indeed, a major supplier of adorableness. When you said, that you were glad that pandas were endangered, I truly did LOL. I snorted several other times. Although I still shake my head over your refusal to use commas correctly, your writing style just gets better and better. Glad you suffered no ill effects from this food adventure.

  2. Michael- Adrian Lucas May 19, 2011 at 4:09 am #

    Great Post! funny as!!

    • Norma May 19, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

      Terrific post, really informative as well as drop dead funny. Thanks Graham.

  3. The Step Dad May 19, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Great post! The “chewing” face reminds me of the time your mother “forced” you to try acorn squash…

    Keep ’em coming. I’m living vicariously through your culinary advetures. I haven’t found a killer asian restaurant in my area of CT yet.

  4. Eva May 19, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Nice t-shirt Glam!!! I seriously laughed out loud while reading this! I read the whole thing straight through! It was so riveting. I can’t believe you ate what you ate. I’m so proud yet grossed out at the same time. Solyee is so cute! I’m a little jealous that I can’t partake in any of these food adventures

  5. craig burkhalter May 20, 2011 at 2:21 am #

    Great post!

  6. Sei May 23, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    Aww shame you didn’t enjoy it too much… I
    LOVE hong uh!! But yeh, can’t go anywhere near the liver-it just looks gross. Euugh. Enjoyed reading this! Thanks!

    • eastmeetsmacon May 24, 2011 at 1:48 am #

      Sei, you recommendation gave me some courage. The whole time I was holding out hope that I would actually wind up liking it. I’m hoping to hit the 피조개 sometime soon, as per your advice.

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