09 October 2008

Gyeongju Part I

Although Busan and Daegu and Gyeonju roughly form a triangle I thought it would be nicer to travel together so I took the train to Daegu after work Thursday night. Friday was National Foundation Day (3 October 2333 BC Tan-gun left his heavenly home and bear-mother and formed the Choson dynasty and, as a result, Korea). Yujin had a class till 9:30 but she ditched the end of it and we went out for some dinner: makjang, table grilled pig intestines sliced into little rings which I actually like quite a bit if they are cooked at least medium-well. I stayed at the same hotel by the station and the same old lady asked me if I wanted a sex-partner and I again said no and it felt like home.

They had been giving me a room on the fifth floor with a view of the dirty back of the hotel behind and I, habitually convinced I am being screwed, had determined to get one of the nicer rooms I had seen on the street side down on the second floor (the first floor is a couple of restaurants). Well I found out that night that they had actually been doing me a favor because the second floor is a very busy place. I heard things I am still trying to forget and I think I actually started dreaming even worse things and as a result I am not sure what was what. And there was some confusion anyway when I told them I wanted to be on the second floor they showed me the clipboard and I thought the ones with the checkmarks were open and I pointed to one of them and they looked at me real funny and took me up there anyway and got out the house key (bad sign) and unlocked the door and there was a pile of shoes inside the door (worse sign) and strange noises were clearly audible. I said "AnnEEEEEEE!" ("NOOOOOO!!!") and we slammed the door and took off down the hall and ducked into the first open door and that became my room. Never again.

There were no seats on the train so we got a couple of tickets on the bus for the following morning (3300W! [$3.30]). It was a nice trip and quick. On the way there we got out the old LonePlan and called around to some hostels and motels and I wanted to stay in the Hanjin Hostel which is supposed to be super cool but they didn't really have couples-type accomodations so we got a room down the street from there at the Taeyang-jang Yeogwan (30000W) and when we got there we found the fella to be very nice and the room even nicer. It was decorated with genuine imitation Victorian furniture and had a huge bed and a nice big brand new bathroom with a nine headed shower, not counting the hand-held. Lovely.

I am skipping over a couple of things that we saw because I want to put all of the sightseeing in the next post together. The rest of this post I want to devote to Friday's lunch and the afternoon's entertainment.

At lunch we went to Kuro Ssambap. The parking lot and the entryway were surrounded by cages filled with exotic birds and the foyer had a strange set of figurines set up in a display of folkways. There were also stuffed birds (former members of the menagerie outside?) and a large collection of interestingly shaped rocks. This is a hobby of Chinese origin (called suseok I think in Korean) practiced of old by the aristocracy: the collection and artful display of rocks that vaguely, and I mean very vaguely, resemble something else. I have seen these before (in Mokpo), and it always seems to me that there must have been a rock somewhere which more resembled a horse or whatever it is supposed to be, but that part of the deal was that you really had to squint to see it. If it was too close, it ruined it. That is the way it seems to me anyway. For all of this (I didn't even mention the souvenir stand), the real show is the food. The goal of ssambap is to fill the table. It is considered crappy ssambap if you can fit any more dishes on the table when they are finished carrying it all out. And that was the first thing that amazed me. The speed at which the staff got the food out. The first lady brought out three or four of the larger items and the second lady brought all the rest on one big shiny aluminum tray. It all fit together like a puzzle. These trays, I could see in the kitchen, were stacked to the ceiling along the walls and they got one down and put the hot items on there and muscled it out. And these gals were not big either. They bussed the tables just as quick. All the dishes nestled together and everything fit just so and back it went. I don't like to think about that because we ate about one fourth of the food they brought and the economic reality of the situation is that it all went back and got recycled. But anyway...

The food. I took the time, with Yujin's help, to write it all down. This is a good primer into the basic principle and selection of Korean restaurant service. All Korean meals include up to a dozen refillable side dishes, called banchan. These vary from restaurant to restaurant and most places change at least some of the dishes regularly based on season or the whim of the proprietor. Some of them are very strange, and some of them are not very tasty to my palette at least, but I like to try new ones anyway and I have found that some things I was almost positive I wouldn't like were absolutely delicious. So, in the picture above, starting in the top right corner, here is the line-up (apologizing in advance for inaccuracies and misspellings. Yujin even had to guess on a couple of identifications and my notes have corrections made after tastings. I also apologize for the photograph, which is slightly out of focus and will not justify much magnification, although you can try by clicking on it):

  1. songpyeon: traditional Korean rice cakes. Like eating Playdough. Yujin loves them ("I'm Korean") and ate all four of these.
  2. Sesame leaf, blanched.
  3. Sesame leaf, pickled with kochujang (see below).
  4. Yujin's rice pot.
  5. Yujin's soup.
  6. Cucumber kimchi.
  7. Yujin's rice water. Don't ask.
  8. Fresh greens (for wrapping and flavouring). Lettuce, kale, dandelion, cilantro.
  9. (row two, beginning on the right) Oysters in kochujang. I am guessing on the seafood. When you order hoe, the Korean raw fish banquet, the sides often include a selection of gutted sea squirts, sea cucumbers, and sea snails. It could have been one of those but I thought I recognized something about them and am calling it oyster. Complex and delicate taste and texture.
  10. Small dried anchovies with tiny hot green peppers in rice vinegar and sesame oil. These little boogies were hot, now. I made Yujin a wrap and snuck some of this in and asked her if it was hot: "I'm Korean."
  11. Spinach cooked in soy sauce with sesame oil and sugar.
  12. Small dried anchovies in kochujang. These little fish add a nice salty flavour to a wrap. The kids at school often have a fistful for their morning snack.
  13. Beef boiled with soy sauce. Dry but delicious.
  14. Larger whole anchovies in a pepper sauce.
  15. Lemongrass pickle, we thought.
  16. (row three, right) Paek kimchi. This is the white cabbage kimchi. Less spicy, more sour notes.
  17. This plate holds two kinds of kimchi. The one on the right is similar to the gat kimchi sold in Hyangiram. It is made of what I think are mustard greens and has a slightly mustardy marination. The other is the traditional red cabbage variety, called baechu kimchi.
  18. Whole fish, lightly battered and fried. This definitely fell into the "better than it looks" category. It was light and fresh and surprisingly meaty. This, and the next five dishes (excepting the sauces and egg pot), comprised the main courses of the meal.
  19. Pork bulgogi. Absolutely wonderful. Just a little fat and cooked down in a sweet, spicy marinade.
  20. This and the next, adjacent the bulgogi, are the ketchup and mustard of Korean cuisine. First, on the right, is red bean sauce, made from soybeans and red pepper. Mildly spicy, it is a key component in many soups and stews and goes well with anything in wraps.
  21. The other sauce, kochujang, is red pepper paste. I have both of these sauces in the fridge at home. I have come to really love this one, however. It is a reduction of red pepper powder and glutinous rice flour. Very hot, very sweet. Some varieties add in some garlic and I like those the best. I eat it in everything. Tonight for supper I had kochujang tuna salad over tomatoes (I found some!).
  22. Beaten egg soup in a hot pot. Some of these are more soup, less egg. This one was all egg. They heat the pot up till it turns red and pour in the liquid (usually salty chicken or fish broth) and then drop in the egg. It is still boiling away when they bring it out.
  23. Same with this. It is doenjang jjigae, which means soybean paste (think miso, but stronger) stew. It had seaweed and bean sprouts and was really good. This might have been Yujin's single favorite dish. Guess which one was mine?
  24. Not this one: rice porridge. I don't remember if this one had much in it. I have had very good rice porridge, but for me the texture has to be just right and I like mine with seafood and vegies. To gritty and I think grits, too smooth and it feels unfoody. I think now that if it wasn't in the picture I just would have clean forgotten it.
  25. Pajeon. Green onion pancake. If I could have got the nerve up to ask for a refill of anything (which is not only allowed but usually appreciated), it would have been this. I get this whenever I can. The batter is more crepe than pancake, crispy on the edges and gooey in the middle. Many times served with chopped octopus: fantastic. (After writing all of this my mouth just now started watering.)
  26. (row four, right) Cucumber pickles.
  27. Mushrooms. These and a dish on the next row were served in a white marination of a kind I have not encountered. It tastes good, but something about it seems, well, alive. (I am sure corrections will be forthcoming so hold on.)
  28. Pickled fish. Tiny raw filets in a spicy brine, almost a sweet ceviche. But not quite. It was another good wrap ingredient. I think we ate all of it.
  29. Clear noodles with tofu. Classic, simple and delicious.
  30. Bean sprouts.
  31. Bracken. She looked up the Korean word in her cell phone translator and that is what it said.
  32. (bottom row, right) Silverware. This is how it comes.
  33. My rice water.
  34. My soup.
  35. My rice pot.
  36. Long beans in the mysterious white marinade.
  37. Bell flower. Translator again.
  38. Blanched greens (for wrapping). White cabbage, kelp, and turnip greens (my favorite, excepting sesame leaf).
Well there you have it. I meant to get to the entertainment tonight but that ain't happenin'. There are pictures up now and you can view them here.