Before heading to Korea, all I knew about Korean food was that you could order bi bim bap and bulgogi and jap jae noodles at any Korean restaurant in the United States. But when I arrived in South Korea, no restaurant served every dish; they specialized. There weren’t many Korean restaurants; there were bi bim bap establishments or ginseng chicken soup specialists. As one eater I met said, “If a place doesn’t specialize, they probably aren’t good.” Here’s a look at the top ten foods in Korea, the best banchan that accompanied said dishes, and some stories behind black pig and videos of still-living octopus and live eel:
The Top Ten Foods in Korea
Jeju Black Pig
The first time I heard about the black pigs of Jeju Island, someone told me, “Black pig grows in the toilet.”
“What?” I said, certain that I had misheard.
“They grow in the toilet.”
I shook my head and pictured little black pigs in an empty porcelain bowl, being sprinkled with store-bought fertilizer like a small potted plant. I actually had the right image, just pigs were in the wrong place and the fertilizer was different.
“They like human feces,” he said. “You know human excrement. This is why the black pig is very special and very good.”
My eyes widened. Still I couldn’t picture the location of the pigs and the toilet, nor did I want to anymore. And also, did he really attribute poop to be the causality to taste?
When I arrived on Jeju Island a few days later, my first stop was the folk village, where a quick tour delivers the culture of the island. It’s also where I saw the black pig pen. What looked like a fireplace was stationed on the far side of the pen.
“What’s that for?” I asked my guide.
“This is the toilet,” he said, going on to explain that it was actually the place where human waste fell. Essentially, the bottom of the long drop and the buffet for the pigs.
Next was lunch. My guide took me to Neul Bom famous for grilling up black pigs. Cooked on the table’s charcoal grill, black pig is best enjoyed dipped in anchovy sauce, smeared with bean paste, wrapped in a sesame leaf or sheet of lettuce, and topped with pickled onions. If you forgot you were eating human-feces-eating swine, the pork was, err, special. (I guess it’s not much different than feasting on shellfish, the poop scoopers of the sea.)
Samgyetang: Ginseng Chicken Soup
In Korea, according to the lunar calendar, the people celebrate the three hottest days of the year with a meal packed with protein. The holiday period is called boknal and translates to “the dog days of summer.” This is both an approximation and an irony, as originally, the way to celebrate the holiday was with dog stew. Times have changed in Korea and dog meat stew has been replaced by the more preferred samgyetang, better known as ginseng chicken soup. (That’s not to say that canines are off every menu.)
On the second day of boknal, known as junbok–the first celebration is chobok and the final is malbok–I sat down at Yok Chon Samgyetan in Seogwipo, the southern district of Jeju Island. Sandals were piled up before the steps and pillows were all occupied as all the floor-sitters scooped up the young chicken and long-cooked rice from their stone bowls. Besides the meat and rice cooking for two to three hours, chefs typically stuffed dates, gingko nuts, and/or chestnuts into the bird’s cavity before tying it up and allowing it to simmer away. And of course they add the ginseng root, which tastes like a rotten carrot, but gives eaters more endurance for these poultry days of summer.
Having my samgyetang on Jeju Island, there were some bonus finds in the soup, like three abalone, a shellfish that sits in abundance off the coast.
Eun Yang Bulgogi
This fine bulgogi is like Kobe beef, well-marbled and quite pricey. At Il Pum Hanwoo, in Busan, the bulgogi was tossed onto the grill with onions and mushrooms. It was almost a shame to tuck the meat away in lettuce. The restaurant served some interesting banchan, including raw squid kim chee, sheets of wet seaweed, and cooked bell flower root, which looks much like sprouts, but slightly tastier.
Grilled Eel and Cold Fish Soup
At the west end of Busan’s Gwang-An Beach, on the second floor, is Myong Pum. While the chopped to pieces eel still moves its mouth and the idea of eating cold fish soup might frighten away the more squeamish eaters, it’s one of the best meals you can find in Korea. The soup, true to its name, is cold, but is much tastier than gazpacho. Served up with raw sea bream, slices of radish, cucumber, and pear, this spicy and icy broth is far superior than the acorn jelly and seaweed soup that also came out.
Eating the not-totally dead eel is the odder experience. (I’m sure all the movements are just nerves, but I didn’t ask.) However, the grill puts things to rest and the eel is dunked in a spicy marinade, paired with slivers of raw ginger, and wrapped in sesame leaves or lettuce. It’s as tasty as any grilled eel found at top sushi spots.
Da Peo Ju Neum Jib, or in English, Best Service, is one of the few places that feels like a back alley find in Busan. With handwritten signs on the walls and the owner posing in photographs with famous Koreans, it’s a nice divergence from the austere or traditional or fine establishments already mentioned. Seafood soup–this time hot–is delivered in troughs to tables and in it swims a whole crab, prawn, squid, and a bevy of shellfish, from abalone to clams to mussels. Octopus tentacles are wrapped on a skewer and even the strangest finds in the spicy broth are enjoyable. Who would have thought that fish intestines were so nice and creamy?
The Korean Doughnut
I stood on line for about thirty minutes to try these dollar doughnuts deep fried in Busan’s Nampo Market. The stall farthest down the street is best. The dough is mixed with cinnamon and sugar, fried on the open grill, snipped open when done cooking, and stuffed with a medley of nuts and more spice and sugar. They are Korea’s best dessert.
In Seoul’s hanok village, Buk Chon, visit Yiga Shinga, one of the best places to experience old-hanok dining, in rooms where hanji paper line the walls. Unlike most Korean restaurants, where banchan weighs down the table, Yiga Shinga serves up kim chee’d cabbage and raddish to complement their specialty: barbecued meat. I ordered the galbi (rib), piled high with onions, and the soya bean paste soup–a staple at many places–which came heavy with tofu.
One of the best food experiences in Korea is eating the hanjungsik, which more or less triples the variety of dishes that banchan culture already provides. At Chon Hanjungsik, on alley 14 off Insadong Street in Seoul, the feast inside this hanok-style building was displayed as familiar ingredients arrived to the table cloaked in culinary inventiveness or were served as seemingly familiar dishes made from ingredients that I had never known to exist. For instance, the things that looked like glass noodles were made from green bean jelly and the yellow shavings topping the dish were thin strips of yolk. Burger patties were done up with a soy sauce glaze and accompanied by raw shaved onions. Of the twenty dishes, the things with tentacles were best: kim chee squid mixed with perilla leaves might have just edged out the jellyfish in mustard sauce.
In Daechon, the streets around the sea were busy with trucks making fish deliveries, filling up the tanks set on restaurant patios. Whoi is the Korean version of sashimi, except the selection of fish aren’t the buttery slices of salmon and meaty tuna. My meal at Jogne Town (or Clam Town) consisted of certain inedibles, like sea squirt, which tasted like I was sampling from a dried up tidal pool, and sea cucumber, which was a mix of garbage and cartilage. But of course these two dishes didn’t ruin the meal, as there were some really odd and wonderful accompaniments set on the disposable plastic tablecloth, like live octopus, which, after having its arms chopped from its body, squirmed in a sesame oil and sesame seed bath.
Before eating live octopus, I had heard stories of people choking to death because a partially ingested tentacle fought back and sucked hard on a person’s throat. The tentacles on my once-eight-legged meal weren’t so large, but I still chewed cautiously, feeling the little suction cups grasp tight against my tongue. I counted my chews like an elementary school kid first learning the hazards of eating too fast. When the octopus started to fall down my throat, chewed well, in fact, for good measure I had to bring it back up and grind it a bit more with my molars.
Besides the odd and awful were the familiar sashimi strips of flounder. About fifty flayed pieces of flounder sat atop something decorative, leaving it to resemble a jello mold of raw fish. But it was much more appetizing than that description. The flounder bone found its way into my chili paste soup along with some white radish, scallion, and fluffy fish brain, leaving me stuffed well into dinner.
Bi Bim Bap
The most famous place in the country to eat bi bim bap is Jeonju. While there are a few renowned places in town, they are busy with tourists. Stepping off the path, just slightly, to the street Pungnam-ro, just outside the village, I ate at Hangook Jib. With soft shell crab kim chee–along with myriad other kim chee’d items from lettuce, spinach, and water (yes, water)–leading the charge, there are a number of solid accompaniments to the city’s famed dish. The bi bim bap was good, solid in fact, but I think you need the bi bim bap equivalent of a sommelier to get to the bottom of a country’s best. (I’m not sure how word got out that the dish was best in Jeonju). I enjoyed the fern, gingko nut, and green bean yellow jelly mixed in with the expected produce and egg and meat. But I wasn’t jumping up and down.
However, there’s one drink that you pretty much have to try in the city, as it’s specific to this region, though it goes best after the bi bim bap is done. Moju, which is essentially makgeolli–the fermented rice drink–enhanced with cinnamon, ginger, dates, licorice, all brewing one day past the date that the makgeolli proves ready. Then sugar is added, making moju a very sweet beverage.