Gangwon-do, the Land of Plenty

What happens when seven hungry bellies, two cars, and a free weekend (it’s a miracle!) decide to get together? Playtime. No holds barred.

We left for the East Coast of Korea on a Saturday morning, at 7:30 AM, sharp, although a serious lack of planning meant we had to find and book an accommodation, research restaurants, and do some last-minute weather forecast checking  somewhere along the way between Seoul and wherever it was we would end up on the East Coast. Thankfully for the rest of the group, there was a sensible one among us who took on this important task for the duration of our weekend trip; if you’re curious, it wasn’t me.

Gangwon Province is home to some of my favorite things in the world: picturesque mountains that form the Taebaek Mountain Range, sandy white beaches, an abundance of fresh seafood, potatoes, tofu made with seawater, and tender local beef.  From Seoul, most of the major destinations along the coast are located within a four-hour drive, which makes a weekend trip totally doable. This is our second trip to the East Coast this month; three weeks ago, we spent three days in Donghae City, but after some discussion on the road, we decided to head to Yangyang County this time, famed for its pine mushrooms, fish, and its sunrises.

Yeonggwangjeong Memil Guksu (영광정 메밀국수)

Yeonggwangjeong Memil Guksu (영광정 메밀국수)

We were famished by the time we parked next to a rice paddy across from the restaurant which, as you can see, looks just like one of the many old-school Korean houses you can commonly see in the countryside. The big signboard and our trusted phone app ensured us that we were at the right place. This restaurant has been feeding hungry mouths for three generations. It specializes in Gangwon-style buckwheat noodles (메밀국수), buckwheat jelly (메밀묵), stuffed buckwheat pancakes (메밀전병), an intensely nutty house-made soft tofu (촌두부), potato pancakes (감자전) and boiled pork platter (편육).

One of the many beautiful rice paddies we saw in Yangyang

A rather scenic view from where we parked.

Lesson of the day: ALWAYS change your car tires ahead of a road trip or else you will most likely miss out on an epic meal (like two members of our crew did)

Lesson of the day: ALWAYS change your car tires ahead of a road trip or else you will most likely miss out on an epic meal (like two members of our crew did).

We went with the pork platter, tofu, potato pancake and buckwheat noodles. And, not long after, our food started arriving. Plate after plate of banchan, the mains we ordered and a bottle of chilled corn makgeolli, a regional specialty.

Pyeonyuk (literally means "sliced meat", in this case, boiled pork belly) served with two mounds of spicy, salty and slightly sweet dried pollock and radish strips that have been rehydrated as well as a side of salted shrimp for dipping

Pyeonyuk served with two mounds of spicy, salty and slightly sweet dried pollock and radish strips.

When done right, like the one you see in the photo, pyeonyuk or sliced boiled meat is tender, juicy and flavorful. When your fellow eaters–three picky Frenchmen who have been in Korea long enough to have had (but not always enjoyed) some of the more representative Korean fare and a hard-to-please local foodie with a discerning palate–begin to nod in silent agreement all the while reaching out for more, that’s when you know you’ve come to the right place.

Gamjajeon (potato pancake), crispy around the edges with a subtle chew in every bite. Gangwon Province is home to some of the best potatoes in the country.

Gamjajeon (potato pancake), crispy around the edges with a subtle chew in every bite. Gangwon Province is home to some of the best potatoes in the country.

I love a good gamjajeon (potato pancakes) more than any other Korean pancake made with a wheat-based batter, including the much-loved pajeon and kimchijeon. All you need, really, are potatoes, salt and cooking oil. When I make gamjajeon at home, I serve it with a simple dipping sauce of soy sauce and vinegar with a sprinkling of chili flakes on top.

A confession: when I’m eating with other people, I try to be polite and consciously stop myself from diving for the crispier outer crust. When I’m at home, alone, I start around the edges and do the full circle before going for the middle.

The spread. The house-made soft tofu was to die for. So fresh and nutty it tastes like the soybeans they're made from. The milky white tofu water in the pot was also gone by the time the meal was over.

The spread.

The house-made soft tofu was an absolute star, fresh and nutty and tasting like the soybeans they were made from. The milky white tofu water in the earthen bowl was also gone by the time the meal was over. Someone drank it straight out of the bowl.

Memil Guksu (Gangwon-Style cold buckwheat noodles)

Memil Guksu (Gangwon-Style cold buckwheat noodlles).

Dongchimi, a mild water-based kimchi made with white radish called dongchimi mu. It’s typically made in late fall, when radishes are in season, and eaten in the winter.

Dongchimi, a mild water-based kimchi made with white radish called dongchimi mu. It’s typically made in late fall, when radishes are in season, and eaten in the winter.

The last dish to arrive was memil guksu, a bowl of housemade buckwheat noodles, simply dressed with plenty of toasted laver flakes, a dollop of what appeared to be a chunky red sauce whose main ingredient was finely-chopped well-fermented red kimchi, and half a hard-boiled egg. The noodles were served with a bowl of ice-cold dongchimi, a mild water-based kimchi made with a radish called dongchimi mu (‘mu’ in Korean means radish), typically made in late fall, when radishes are in season, and eaten in the winter.

We were also given an additional side of some more of the red kimchi sauce and were instructed to add more to our liking, along with the vinegar, sugar, mustard, perilla seed oil that were already on the table. To the noodles, we also added a ladle or two of the cold dongchimi soup for moisture.

Memil guksu is and always will be a humble dish. It tastes like it looks and that is the beauty of it–a meal that tastes like it came from your mom’s kitchen. A thoroughly satisfying experience.

Post-feast beach time. When's the last time you built a sandcastle?

Post-feast beach time. When’s the last time you built a sandcastle?

After the phenomenal meal on the road, which cost us a grand total of 50 bucks, we headed off to Naksan Beach for some sun, surf and sand.

Post-beach pool time.

Post-beach pool time.

Followed by this.

I took that photo in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I took this photo in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Then this.

 

Hill Star Pension

http://www.hillstar.kr/

Seo-myeon Naehyeon-li, 30-2, Yangyang-gun, Gangwon-do

강원 양양군 서면 내현리 30-2

010-8889-7170

Yeonggwangjeong Memil Guksu (영광정 메밀국수)

Ganghyeon-myeon Mulgap-li, 62, Yangyang-gun, Gangwon-do

강원 양양군 강현면 물갑리 62

033-673-5254

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Aside

Cold Noodle Soup? Yes, Please!

It is rare to see me lose my appetite. Fact. But, it’s been known to happen from time to time; I am probably either disgustingly hungover or it’s just too hot outside. And, as you may or may not know, Korean summers can be unforgiving with its near-suffocating humidity.

In either case, there is probably only one thing in the world that can still tickle my fancy: a bowl of Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon. A bowl of buckwheat noodles in a cool broth, traditionally made with beef or pork or pheasant meat, but mostly with beef and/or pork these days, is a simple yet beautiful thing. The noodles come with half a hard-boiled egg on top, cucumber slices, pickled radish, green onions and some cold sliced beef and/or pork.

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It makes me happy just looking at it. I also happen to have had that exact bowl for lunch today at the Nonhyeon location of Pyeongyang Myeonok (평양면옥), an institution here in Seoul that has been in business for three generations. There are two locations in Seoul, the original in Jangchung-dong in Jung-gu and the second in Nonhyeon-dong in Gangnam.

I agree when people say it takes some practice to appreciate the subtle flavors of Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon. The broth at Pyeongyang Myeonok is almost completely transparent; I’ve heard many people complain that the  broth is “bland” or “watery.” I’ve seen folks try to “fix” this “problem” by reaching out for the vinegar and mustard bottles and squirt a generous amount of both into their broth. To each their own, but I personally prefer mine clean with minimal vinegar and mustard.

I’ll be doing a naengmyeon tour this summer with Joe, so expect more posts on this favorite Korean dish of ours. Also, did I mention that both of my parents are from North Korea? They love this stuff and always have a lot to say about the different restaurants that profess to serve the very best in town. But, more on that another day.

Here is one more photo of Pyeongyang naengmyeon at Eulmildae (을밀대), another local hot spot that boasts a long history that goes back four decades with three locations in and around Seoul: the original in Yeomni-dong in Mapo, one in Yeoksam-dong in Gangnam and one in Daehwa-dong in Ilsan.

Eulmildae Pyeongyang Mulnaengmyeon

Eulmildae Pyeongyang Mulnaengmyeon

Ice-cold naengmyeon. For the first-timers, there’s a special way of ordering at Eulmildae; you can ask for different versions by saying “geonaeng”(거냉) which means “without ice”, “daejja”(대자) which means “large” (double portion), or “minjja”(민자) which will get you an extra portion of noodles without the customary boiled egg and meat toppings. As you can see, the broth here is more opaque and the flavor is beefier than that of Pyeongyang Myeonok. The noodles here have a chewier texture and are thicker as well. I can’t say which style I prefer more of the two. They’re just different.

No matter how oppressively hot it is outside, downing a bowl of this stuff in a fully air conditioned restaurant is guaranteed to make your teeth chatter.

 

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Jjambbong: A Near Break Up Story

Jjambbong: Near-Breakup Story

Two dearest friends of mine, a couple, nearly broke up over a seemingly innocent bowl of jjambbong when they were still dating.

“C’est dégueulasse!” uttered the nice Frenchman, looking dubiously at the steaming bowl of spicy seafood noodle soup his Korean girlfriend, an avid foodie, had ordered for herself. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, the girl quietly put down her chopsticks, picked up her purse, and walked out on him.

The two are happily married now. I heard the story a while back but it kind of stuck with me, because since then, every time I look down at a bowl of jjambbong, I think back to the story and picture the look that may have been on my friend’s typically placid face as she put down her chopsticks.

That’s the funny thing about memories. They randomly stay with you and you don’t even know why.

This is my lunch today. A classic Korean-style Chinese dish that consists of wheat noodles in a spicy red broth, topped with vegetables, and an assortment of seafood like shrimp, baby octopus, sea cucumber, squid, and shellfish. In terms of popularity, it’s up there with its biggest rival, jajangmyeon, which is a bowl of wheat noodles smothered in a dark black bean sauce, typically sweet with a ton of onions, cabbage, ginger and pork.

Traditionally enjoyed on special occasions in Korea like graduation day and moving day, jjambbong and jajangmyeon have been adored by Koreans over the years, for their taste as well as their affordable price.

Speaking of moving, I just realized I may be having this again this Saturday as it is moving day for me and Joe. I’ve been super lazy with my write-ups, but I’ll get better soon once my crazy schedule becomes…well…a little less crazy in a couple of weeks.

Enjoy your lunch!