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January 01, 2019, Korea South

Food for the soul

Satoko Nishimura finds the heart of South Korea as she goes on a food trail away from Seoul

Satoko Nishimura

Suspend, for a moment, your perception of South Korea as the land of K-Pop, Psy and aesthetic beauty.

Venture beyond the bright lights and beautiful people of Seoul and you will discover, as I did, delights that would thrill the most fi nicky of foodies.

The culinary adventure can be found 300km south of Seoul, in the agricultural region of Jeolla-do province. There, discover authenticity — real Korean cuisine infused with a rich rural culture that has long been the secret of locals.

Until now.

Day 1: First rule: “No rules”
Forget Gangnam, take me to Gunsan, a two-hour ride south from Incheon Airport. Gunsan means “lots of mountains”.

Framed by two rivers in the North and South, and the Yellow Sea to its West, Gunsan’s fishing boats and vegetable farms hint of its tantalising treasures.

Most of all, it is known for its exotic blue crab, fresh from the coastal waters off this bay city.

Even the customary complimentary side dishes that is the signature of a Korean meal is special — all 10 to 20 of them, putting the paltry appetisers of Singapore’s Korean offerings at food courts to shame.

Where to start? Is there a procedure? Everything looked so good, including the fresh vegetable leaves, each the size of an adult’s palm.

“I should have read the Korean table manner book in advance!” (My embarrassed inner voice screamed).

Accustomed to Japanese cuisine with its meticulous customs, I was aghast.

“No rule, all up to you!” came the friendly advice from the locals.

No rules meant the freedom to choose your preferred ingredients to be wrapped in a leaf and compare notes with fellow diners.

The main dish was the signature “raw crab”. Suck the chewy meat from the milky white crab shell and your taste buds will be rewarded with a fl avour utterly unique, even for one raised on tons of raw fish.

The slightly salty taste goes well with the Korean beer cocktail made with soju (Korean Shochu) and beer. I was smitten.

The verdict: No rule, lotsa of drool.

Day 2: Secret of longevity and glowy skin
Beautiful clear blue skies provide a perfect contrast to the red balloons and banners at Sunchang’s annual Fermented Soybean Festival.

Sunchang villagers are known for living long lives. Could this longevity be due to its famous Gochujang hot pepper paste? Gochujang is a savoury, sweet and yet spicy paste which, when first produced in 1392, could only be enjoyed by emperors and a privileged few.

It is made from water, salt, glutinous rice (mochi) powder, barley syrup, chilli powder and dried fermented soybean powder.

I joined a 20-minute Sunchang Gochujang making class conducted by 72-year-old Mdm Kang Sun Ok, one of the country’s celebrity Gochujang masters.

“Stir the paste till bubbles come out,” boomed the third-generation master. “Cool the paste, or the malted yeast will be killed by warm temperature.”

It was tiring work. But the master, her face glowing in her satin white traditional Hanbok dress, seemed unfazed.

“My secret to good health is to eat vegetables, not so much meat,” she said.

After the hard work, you would expect to be rewarded with a taste of your own Gochujang. But it must “sleep” in the vase for at least a few months to be fermented first.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed meals with more Kimchi and Gochujang — and my favourite, Ssamjang (Soybean and Gochujang).

Day 3: What to say when you like something in South Korea
“Choayo!” (pronounced choo-ah-yo).

It was in Namwon city where I found myself exclaiming “Choayo!” at every meal.

Namwon is known as the City of Love because among Korean folktales, a temple here tells a story similar to that of Cinderella.

The story goes that Mongryong, a handsome and intelligent 16-year-old government official fell in love with Chunhyang, a female entertainer, also 16. After overcoming many complex obstacles, their story ends with a happy-ever-after.

You can visit the temple mentioned in the tale. The culinary offering is straightforward: Loach soup or black pork BBQ stalls are everywhere. Loach thrives in the clean rice paddies. The famous black pig, native to Korea, is also raised in Jirisan.

Mr Kim, our “Choayo” (this word can be used for nice people, too) driver, says he has been waiting for this loach soup ever since we left Seoul.

The soup has a deep Miso fl avour. It has lots of tiny soft bones of the loach which needs getting used to. There is also fried loach, which goes quite well with local Makgeolli alcohol.

Whether Jirisan’s Cinderella favoured the loach remains a mystery.

Day 4: Story of hope and natural medicine
“Just yesterday, one bird finally came back from Russia after a year,” declared a Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve offi cer, looking pleased. “Well, it’s already past 5pm and we must hurry so that we don’t miss the sunset.”

We rushed to the large S-shaped waterway.

This 3.5km-long Unesco world heritage bay site boasts the best sunset view in the country.

Take your eyes off the sunset and you will spot small grayish crabs hiding in the muddy holes at the roots of the thick yellow reeds.

Crab? Check. But no sign of migratory bird.

“About 2,500 birds including hooded cranes fl y here to survive the winter. We hope they will come soon.”

Perhaps to console us, the offi cer offered a cup of hot tea, made with boiled root and the underground stem of Suncheon reeds. It works as herbal medicine to aid digestion.

The simple grassy taste reminds me of my grandma’s tea made from unknown herbs, which I was not able to buy from supermarkets.

I miss her.

Day 5: Meet the abalone millionaire who caught the wave
So I’m finally at Wando Island, on the Southern edge of South Korea, one of 250 islands facing the Korea Strait.

Expect the best grilled fi sh at any of the local eateries on the island, which is about the size of the eastern region of Singapore.

But make a beeline for abalone, the world’s most expensive shellfish. Eighty per cent of the abalone in Korea comes from the clear, clean waters off this island. Some are exported to Singapore.

“Come and join the abalone farm tour”, said Mr Oh Ji Su (below), a young, tall abalone farm owner, as he handed out life jackets for the boat trip to the site.

“When I was a child, this island was only known for its beautiful coast and seaweed. Two decades ago, some started growing abalone which eats seaweed.” He worked for a construction company after graduating from estate management school in Seoul. But four years ago, he got into the abalone business as a farmer when he saw the potential to earn more.

From 1,000 abalones, the 36-year-old now owns about 100,000 pieces. He is now a millionaire and boss to 17 workers.

But his story is not Gangnam-style. “Abalone needs two to three years to grow till it reaches a marketable size,” he said.

The abalone farm tour comes with three pieces of fresh live abalones (they really look like snails), and you can eat them grilled or as sashimi.

I had them grilled and they were super chewy and crunchy. Three pieces is about S$12 (KRW10,000), which is a steal compared to S$40 for a can of two in Singapore.

Day 6: A fruity dessert after good spicy meals
Finally, dessert. The city is well known for the Naju Pear, a huge round juicy fruit which is available in autumn.

The Asian pear is my favourite fruit and this is heavenly.

At around S$20 (KRW15,000 to 20,000), you can join the pear picking tour at the local pear farm.

I picked three large pears, each about 15cm in diameter and weighing about 800g.

The verdict: Juicy, crunchy with an clean, sweet flavour. Its huge size means you can share it at least with eight people.

When night fell, we were guided to a local gourmet restaurant for beef bone soup (Gomtang), another “must-eat” in Naju city.

I fell in love with it after just three sips of it.

The bone broth is rich in minerals and collagen and is said to contribute to weight loss and have natural body healing power.

Day 7: May the Kimchi be with you
On the way back to Seoul, we dropped by a new tourist attraction, Damyang Bamboo forest, where you can enjoy a 2km-long walk among the bamboos. Each of the eight paths feature a unique theme, such as “Zombie walk” and “best friend walk”. A feeling of peace and serenity fills my soul.

Maybe this is because of my grandma’s belief that bamboo forests are safe havens during earthquakes as the roots are connected to one another, securing the trees to the ground.

Surrounded by bamboo trees, it was the perfect place to try my first taste of bamboo rice and Bamboo leaf wine. All in, the agricultural region of Jeolla-do lives up to the promise of distinctive, fresh dishes.

While Seoul pulsates with activity and the pizazz of Gangnam, the small towns of Jeolla-do offers the essence of Korean cuisine, fresh off the sea or farm, and unbeatable charm.

Or, as they say in Jeolla-do, Choayo!

 

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