Earlier this month, I embarked on a culinary trip down the Jungang Expressway, eating our way across Korea’s heartland. The Jungang Expressway, or route 55, stretches north-to-south through Gangwon-do and Gyeongsangbuk-do. Its northern terminus is Chuncheon, and its southern terminus is Daegu. Other major cities along the route include Andong, Wonju, and Jecheon.
It’s strange to think of this vertical line dividing the country into east and west as central, but that’s exactly what Jungang means. While the country’s population slowly moves to major urban centers, the power of these cities dwindles. Take Hoengseong-gun, the home of Korea’s highest-quality cattle ranches: the number of children entering elementary school has been decreasing by 100 each year, forcing school closures. However, the history of this region is long and rich. For instance, Daegu was a major part of the Silla Dynasty and remained relevant through the Joseon Dynasty. Andong is the country’s historical center of Confucianism, and is still considered the capital of the Korean spirit; when Queen Elizabeth II visited Korea in 1999, she asked to be taken to the most Korean part of the country—they brought her to Andong.
Many of the regional delecacies are descended from a tradition of aristocracy, the Yangban class, but several others are derived from necessity. Many of the hearty stews of the region — dakgalbi (닭갈비) from Chuncheon, jjimdak (찜닭) from Andong, and galbijjim (갈비찜) from Daegu—were invented out of a need to feed many people with limited supplies, when Korea wasn’t as wealthy as it is now. These foods have endured, but now the focus has shifted to quality over quantity, and each food has its own special alleyway in its hometown where it was invented and innovated to culinary perfection.
A couple months previous, I was approached on the street by volunteers on behalf of the Korean Food Foundation, part of the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. They were recruiting foreigners to promote Korean food, by travelling around Korea and trying the local foods. Oh, and it was all expenses paid.
I sent out the invitation to my friends, and wound up with a team of five:
- Curtis File, a Canadian with journalistic experience who has worked in Korea as a teacher, a TV presenter, and an editor for 10 Magazine.
- Verv, an American who came to Korea as a linguist with the US army, but is now a philosophy student at Kyung Hee University.
- Phil Digby, an American who only moved to Korea a few months ago
- Dori Yi, a Korean-American from LA who was paradoxically the most Americanised of all of us and was mainly there as our guinea pig
- Myself, the editor for Korea.net and contributor to Korea Gig Guide, among others
All of us are confirmed carnivores, with Dori claiming he doesn’t eat vegetables and Verv who can’t handle any kind of saltwater seafood.
We went to an orientation meeting for members of all five teams, where we were to select the region we would cover. It turned out two other teams also wanted to visit Andong, a major cultural center of Korea known for its myriad cuisines. The dispute was eventually settled with a coin toss, with our team emerging victorious.
Our voyage began on October 7 in front of Cheongnyangni Station, where we met our interpreter Angie and the producers from KBS2, who were filming our trip for future broadcast. Our first destination was Chuncheon, where we had a dinner reservation.
Chuncheon is a northern city of South Korea, situated in the mountainous province of Gangwondo. Its climate makes it an ideal region for agriculture, and the city is historically known as a center for chicken farming. Also, due to the city’s strategic location near the DMZ, it plays host to many Korean soldiers on leave, who come to the city looking for affordable food.
Most of the city’s dakgalbi restaurants are in Dakgalbi Alley, a narrow street with about a dozen specialty restaurants. I had pre-chosen Chuncheon Jungang Dakgalbi, largely for its helpful website. There, we were served by owner Kim Hee-jeong, and we met her young son Daniel who spoke English well.
Even if you’ve had dakgalbi in Seoul before, you still won’t be prepared for the Chuncheon variety. The quality of the meat is noticeably superior, as the meat doesn’t need to be frozen on the short trip from the farm to your table. The local restaurants also use different types of chicken from Seoul restaurants, selecting only younger chickens that have smoother and softer meat. Also, rather than the mystery cuts you get in Seoul restaurants, this place used only leg meat. Although “galbi” means ribs, there is no trace of ribs anywhere in this meal. Apparently its traditional name was “dak bulgogi,” but this was changed because “galbi” is considered to have a better image.
Dakgalbi has a half-century of history, having first been introduced in the ‘60s as an anju, or side dish often eaten with alcohol. It has always been a more affordable dish, which made it popular among university students and earned it nicknames like “university student galbi” or “commoners’ galbi.” Its popularity blossomed in the late ‘80s, when a news programme introduced it as a cheap meal option.
Hoengseong-gun Hanu Festival
I was lucky enough to learn about the Hanu Festival at work, when my coworker Sojung handed me this article to proofread.
This was the seventh year of the annual festival, which is thrown to promote the Hanu, a Korean breed of cattle. The festival offered a taste of Hanu in a variety of foods, from Korean foods like bulgogi to western staples such as sausages and hamburgers. Other regional delicacies featured at the festival included Anheung jjinbbang (steamed buns) and deodeok (mountain herb) dishes, but come on. Beef!
And on top of the food, there were lots of activities and chances to learn more about traditional Korean agriculture. You could walk on water in inflatable balloons or ride the mechanical bull. Members of our group tried both of these activities, and our participation drew quite a crowd, as well as created longer lineups for both.
Across the stream in the Hanu Theme Pasture, visitors could meet Hanu cows and bulls and learn more about cattle farming techniques of the region. The Hanu cattle reach their famous tenderness partly because of the clean environment of the county, and also due to a life of labor ploughing fields which makes their meat especially tender.
“Long ago we used ox-drawn carts,” explained Han Won-bae, a civil servant of the county who was on hand. “Now they are tender meat.”
After that, we got taken to Hoengseong Native Hanu Plaza. As soon as we walked into the place, we were smothered by the powerful aroma of sizzling beef strips. The smell alone was more nourishing than the actual taste of some other varieties of beef I’ve had.
We met the butcher who showed us how to cut meat properly, quickly and decisively with lots of pressure, then gave us more than we could eat. We had simple beef strips cooked on a regular table charcoal grill for a few seconds on each side, and we had raw yookhoe (육회), beef strips served with slices of pear. The meal was concluded with a bowl of green naengmyeon made with mountain herbs and a cup of sikhye, a fermented rice beverage. Sikhye comes in many varieties across Korea, and here it was pleasantly sour.
After we were done there, we hopped in the bus for Andong, where our first stop was the Andong Soju Traditional Korean Food Museum. Normally I’m really not a fan of soju — I can’t stand the artificially flavoured ethanol drink — but that swill is worlds apart from Andong Soju.
Andong Soju was enjoyed during the Silla Dynasty (BC 57-AD 935), but later became less common due to prohibition. Its production was almost entirely stopped in the ’60s due to food shortage, and in the mid-’70s the federal government enacted a system which allowed for only one soju manufacturer in each province, effectively ending the traditional distillation of Andong-style soju.
It was revived in time for the ’88 Olympics, when the government was searching for traditional Korean liquors to represent the regions of Korea. Cho Ok-hwa thought to revive Andong Soju, having remembered watching her mother and grandmother produce it when she was young. For her efforts, she was named an intangible cultural asset of Gyeongbuk, and she began producing it commercially in 1990.
Still serving as the skillholder of Andong Soju, she keeps the distillation methods a closely guarded secret, sharing it only with her daughter-in-law Bae Kyung-hwa, who will someday take over her role.
Unfortunately we stopped by on a Saturday when the distillery was closed, but we received a guided tour of the museum, which depicts many of Korea’s traditional food ceremonies, for occasions such as birthdays, weddings, funerals and funerary rituals (more on those later), and royal receptions. Also, remember how I mentioned before that Queen Elizabeth II came to Andong, for her 73rd birthday? Well, one guess which intangible cultural asset served her a breakfast meal.
We also got to learn a bit about soju distillation, and the visit concluded with a taste test of 45% soju produced right next door. It was powerful and aromatic, and it warmed our insides all the way down. By far a superior experience to drinking 1000 won bottles of soju from the convenience store.
For supper that night, we went to Andong Godunga, a mackerel restaurant that seems to have succeeded as a franchise, as well cornering the mail-order market. By the time I made it to the restaurant, I’d already been exposed to the face of the founder, who appears on restaurant signs and food packaging everywhere, in cartoon form as well as in photographs. In the restaurant I had the opportunity to meet his son, a friendly restauranteur and smart businessman named Yu Yongdong.
The actual mackerel itself is caught nowhere near Andong, instead coming from the mouth of the Nakdong River where it meets the sea down by Busan. Long ago, fresh fish wasn’t readily available inland, and merchants would salt the fish in order to delay it from rotting. Andong was the farthest inland it could be brought, 80 kilometers upstream, so it became an important part of Andong’s traditional cuisine, often being served by Yangban aristocrats to their guests.
We were presented with two varieties of mackerel, one grilled and the other in a tangy broth. Afterwards, we cleansed our palates with sikhye, which tasted notably spicier here, as it’s made through fermentation with red pepper powder, ginger, and radish.
You can read more about our experience in my restaurant review on the Hansik website.
Andong Apple Orchard
We spent the night in a traditional Korean house called Jongjae Jongtaek (종재종택), and in the morning the owner took us on a walk through his apple orchard. It was a very large field, patrolled by one very suspicious dog and maintained by three Korean women who pluck leaves off the trees in order to give the apples more sunlight.
Although Daegu to the south is much better known for its apples, Andong is actually the largest apple-producing region in the nation. They’re known for their good colours and sweet and crisp taste. I managed to get my hands on a green apple, which was especially excellent.
Andong Funerary Food
We went to Kkachi Gumeong Jib (까치구멍집) for brunch to try Korean funerary food. At first, I thought that eating funerary food sounded morbid, but apparently it has a long and unexpected history. The foods were originally connected with a Korean funerary tradition (제사), in which food sacrifices are made to deceased ancestors. This practice, which is still practiced by most Korean families today, became popular during the Joseon era as a midnight snack for aristocratic scholars known as Seonbi. The Seonbi often worked late into the night, studying, reading, or writing, and required something to snack on at odd hours. The reason it is considered “false” is because all foods used in the jesa ceremony inevitably get covered in incense, but this food, unexposed to incense, must obviously not have been used in the ceremony, hence false.
I chose Kkachi Gumeong Jib based on the recommendation of a friend from the region. The name translates very roughly to “Magpie Hole House.” Long ago, Korean houses were made with a hole in the roof to allow for ventilation, which also often became nests for magpies.
We were presented with a large array of heavy bronze dishes containing a variety of foods.
The first dish brought out was like a bronze goblet, and it held a variety of bite-sized foods, including egg, pan-fried mackerel and pollock, fried vegetables, and shark. This was an excellent sampler to try before starting the main course.
Next came the bibimbap, a well-known Korean delicacy typically involving rice mixed with vegetables and gochujang (hot pepper sauce). But Andong has its own distinct variety of bibimbap, which omits the gochujang in favour of soy sauce and sesame seeds. It was a pleasing departure from regular bibimbap, never overpowering the palate and stealing the show from the other dishes.
The show was stolen by the next dish. On a plain white plate was a row of bite-sized shingles with wavy gill-like lines on top. This was meat from the shark, the most feared predator of the sea, but now it was on our plate. The texture was very rough, but it breaks apart easily in your mouth. It was dry and heavily salted, but otherwise unlike any fish I’d ever eaten. Everyone around the table agreed on its strong resemblance to pork. As I said, if a pig learned how to swim, it would taste like this. It was even loved by Verv, who can’t eat saltwater seafood and had even boycotted the mackerel the night before.
For more information about funerary food, you can read my restaurant review here which also contains a recipe.
The culinary climax of the tour took place in Andong Old Market, the birthplace of jjimdak, a boiled dish containing chicken, vegetables, and cellophane noodles (당면). Restaurants are inside buildings, but the food itself is cooked over gas grills out front, presumably to save patrons from smoke inhalation and the high temperatures. It also makes a walk down the market alley into a playground of scents and sounds of sizzling jjimdak.
Phil and Dori volunteered to try making jjimdak, which was done by mixing in the ingredients in a particular order. During our meal, the owner instructed us to start with the noodles, which lose their flavour quickly.
The owner told us a bit more about the history of the food. Jjimdak was created in the 1980s as a good option for someone on a budget, unlike all the other foods we’d had in Andong which catered to the Yangban. When chicken supplies were low, people would try to stretch out what little meat they had by serving it in a stew; that is where jjimdak comes from. In its early years it was a popular choice among university students, who didn’t care so much about taste as they did about eating a hearty full meal. Around 2002 the emphasis switched from quantity to quality, and the jjimdak restaurants of Andong began honing their recipes, coming up with their own special formulas for the sauce.
The owner stressed the importance of the work he had put into his creation. He relayed to us that he had dedicated his entire life to finding the right combination of spices to make his sauce a masterpiece. “I’d never serve anything less than perfection,” he told us. “I’d rather die.”
You can read more about Andong Jjimdak in Phil’s restaurant review.
Unfortunately we didn’t make it all the way down to Daegu, where the plan was to try galbijjim. Instead, we headed back up to Seoul on full stomachs, arriving late on Sunday night.
Of the foods we sampled, some of them come from ages-old traditions, such as funerary food and mackerel, while others were a more modern tradition born out of scarcity, such as jjimdak and dakgalbi. This whole region is linked by one long, winding four-lane expressway, and I believe over the years it has helped the cities of the region to somewhat share their cuisines, while also leaving them isolated enough for their signature dishes to maintain their purity. With the exception of mackerel, most of the foods we tried were closely related to the agriculture of the region, yielding fresh meat and greens for our plates. And, even counting the few fish dishes we had, all the meals we tried were hearty and savoury. Thus, while there is lots of variety, you can see some common themes in the delicacies that make up what we refer to as Jungang Hansik.
Our journey is long over, but you can still follow us online.