I’ve been slowly gaining weight (wearing my stretchy pants again, George!) since my arrival here in Korea. I always thought New York and Tokyo had a lot of restaurants, but I think there are more eateries here per square meter than anywhere else I’ve been in the world. And I think in general, there are more people who truly appreciate good food and the food culture in this country is amazing to me. There is no shortage of every kind of fish (or sea creature), vegetables, meat, noodles, and grain dishes, not to mention pizza, pasta, pastries, and what have you. On the island of Jeju, the choices are a bit more limited than Seoul but we did enough research beforehand to know what the local specialties were. For an island known for its strong gusty winds, the clear blue ocean, and the famed women divers, Jejudo is blessed an abundance of seafood (most famous being sea urchin, abalone, mackerel, and hairtail), black pigs, and a variety of oranges grown on the island. We didn’t go looking for specific restaurants but rather stuck to what was fresh and readily available, and looked for restaurants that seemed to attract a lot of locals.
My brother and Peter found a small seafood restaurant not too far away from our hotel and we ended up dining there twice. We had a whole mackerel grilled one night and then tried it in a spicy stew the next time. I used to not like mackerel very much, especially in raw sasimi form, because of how oily and fishy it is but somehow the spicy stew we had tasted fresh and had none of the mackerel’s characteristic fishiness. In contrast, the grilled hairtail we had was prepared so simply and seasoned delicately with sea salt that I enjoyed most of it without any rice at all. With our meal we were served bowls of seaweed soup (miyukook) but unlike the ones I make they used a clam broth base. It smelled and tasted as if I was drinking directly from the ocean; it was briny, slippery, warm, and delicious. The night Peter and Kevin visited this little local restaurant without me, they also tried rice cooked with abalone and sea urchin served in hot stone pots. I had never seen that preparation before and I was very curious but I had porridge made with abalone for breakfast at the hotel two days in a row so I was content with my quota of abalone for this trip. My porridge had big pieces of abalone, roasted laver, and smelled of sesame seed oil. It may sound heavy and those who have never had rice for breakfast might find it weird, but it warmed me up and I felt strong and fortified after eating it. I love a good bowl of oatmeal porridge but savory rice porridge has now taken a stronghold in my heart.
During our 7 hour hike yesterday we stopped at a roadside eatery for some seafood and scallion pancakes, and a bottle of Korean rice wine. Maybe it was because we were sitting outside on a beautiful day overlooking the ocean (I think everything tastes better outdoors), but we loved our seafood pancake. It was made to order and served to us piping hot. The pancake was crispy on the outside and around the edges, but soft and doughy on the inside. The ladies who prepared it didn’t skimp on scallions, octopus, or on shrimp. We paired it with a bottle of local Jeudo makguli, which was light but had a particularly pronounced tartness from the fermented rice. Everything was just perfect.
Aside from all the yummy things we ate, I found the local people very friendly and the pace of the island a lot slower than Seoul. With all the palm trees and the warm weather we had (plus the black lava rocks, beautiful ocean, and lush green valleys), Jejudo reminded me a lot of Hawaii. Well, Hawaii with great Korean food…