Sunday, July 7, 2013

2013: Jeju Chapter - 5 must-eats in Jeju

Gwangchigi Beach, a short walk from Seongsan Ilchulbong. Millions of yellow radish flowers bloom in the month of March over the plateau.

According to my maiden trip to Korea, the way to finding awesome authentic Korean fare is getting lost. This isn't some joke - most of the best food spots were chanced upon after wandering around aimlessly in a non-English speaking country. When there's a chance to travel and eat, I hold no bars and ditch my pescetarian diet entirely.

1. Seafood stew

Fresh seafood stew (small) - 33,000 KRW
Starved and freezing, my girlfriends and I found this cosy eatery along the road fronting the Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong). In fact, the entire road was lined with eateries boasting the freshest seafood and most authentic Korean food.

Tip #1 for picking the most authentic Korean eatery: Look for the one patronised only by the locals.

Located at the end of the string of restaurants, not a single staff in this quaint place spoke English to us despite our foreign-looking features. The first thing that caught my eye was the way the diners sat with one leg crossed and the other leg pressed against their chests while leisurely fishing out morsels from smoking hotpots. We're at the right place, my inner goddess celebrated.

The restaurant served mainly seafood stew, so the menu didn't require too much studying. I'm not a fan of seafood, but I have to confess that this style of cooking fresh seafood blew me away.

The impressive pot of already-bubbling pot of seafood stew was set to a high boil on the stove nestled in the table top, before the waiter swiftly flipped the muscle side of the live, squirming abalone over to cook in the boiling soup. Okay okay, I know how fresh your seafood is.

I'd have to admit, I have yet to get over the taste of every mouthful. Dig your ladle into the depths of the stew to unravel a bountiful harvest of seafood - yabbies, flower crabs, squid, octopi and 12 fresh abalone. Each abalone is a satisfying mouthful of springy and sweet mollusk muscle from the broth's slow cooking.

These aren't ordinary prawns.
The yabbies (above) are a close second. Unlike prawns, the yabbies' thick shells keep the flesh juicy and succulent even after prolonged boiling. The only trouble with these fellas is that you have to have excellent psychomotor skills to maneuver the scissors to pry open the shells to get to the good stuff. Usually, that takes a good amount of stew and shells flying all over the place. If you're there for a good meal, be mentally prepared to get your clothes stained.

2. Kimbap (Korean rice rolls)

Kimbap - 800 KRW a piece
I love these darlings - the Koreans' version of rice rolls may bear a great deal of resemblance to their Japanese cousins, but the taste is distinctively Korean. For one, the Koreans seldom add rice vinegar and sugar into their kimbap rice, so you'll realise that kimbap tastes fresher without the scent of vinegar. Pick one up at the local market or convenience store for as low as 800 KRW, which is about S$1.

3. Rice vermicelli with fish roe

Rice vermicelli with fish roe, 7,000 KRW
The haenyo (women of the sea) are an integral feature of Jeju-do's culture. Diving along the coasts of Jeju to harvest seafood, these women brave the elements of nature and age to bring the best of the sea to our dining tables. We found this little shack along Olleh 9 where the haenyo worked and sold the seafood they harvested. Apart from selling boiled seafood, the other alternative served was rice vermicelli. The flat rice vermicelli swam in a light broth of fish roe and spring onion, with a hint of seaweed and sweet onion to enhance the taste. It may be easy to whip up, but the heart and soul that was put into making this bowl of vermicelli is what makes it truly outstanding.

4. Black pork grill

I never thought we would be able to have this.

Black pig samgyeopsal
Thanks to the Jeju guesthouse's owner Sue, we needed not go hungry on our first night in Jeju; she was serving a beautiful cut of black pig samgyeopsal (fatty belly pork) for the night. For those who are familiar with the art of cooking samgyeopsal, the way the fat distributes between the muscle is an important way to differentiate good belly pork from the meh ones. While working skillfully to flip the belly pork and cut them up into bite size chunks, Sue took the chance to educate us on the way to eat samgyeopsal the Korean way - by wrapping it in cabbage, adding your favourite spicy bean paste and sliced garlic, and taking all of it in one mouthful. By doing this, you unleash and combine all the different flavours and textures within your mouth and allowing them to take over all your senses. The juice of the pork, the crunch of the cabbage, the pungent sting of the raw garlic, the saltiness of the bean paste - it is amazing how they work together to make you want more.

What's a good BBQ without alcohol? The shoju introduced by Sue is an exclusive product of Jeju-do, as it is made from the spring water from Mount Halla, the highest point on Jeju-do. It delivered a crisp, sweet flavour to the throat without stinging the tongue, and went well with the dishes.

Recommendation for belly pork on Jeju Island:
- Doldam Guesthouse
- Haeundae Garden in Seogwipo-si

5. Jeju mandarin orange jam

The homemade ones are strictly seasonal, because many Jeju natives grow their own Mandarin trees in their yards and harvest/barter/sell them between December and April. The guesthouse owner Sue's homemade mandarin orange jam appears on our breakfast table every morning, free-of-charge. It isn't as sweet as off-the-shelf bottles ones, and yet she was able to retain the fragrance of the orange pulp with a tinge of spiciness from the orange skin. I douse my morning salad, toast and whatever I could get my hands on with Sue's creation every morning, because each little bottle (200ml) comes at a hefty price of 8,000 KRW.

Coming soon... 2013: Seoul Chapter - 5 must-eats in Seoul

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