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Travel 7 minutes 14 June 2019

Spring feast in Pyeongchang, Olympic province

As the cold wind of Pyeongchang in Gangwon Province blew, I pulled my collar tighter. The vernal equinox, which heralds the start of spring, was long past, but winter was not quite ready to admit defeat. The Winter Olympics were held here a year ago; Pyeongchang was the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the battleground for most of the outdoor snow events. Competitors, reporters and the audience were shocked by the freezing weather and bitter winds that swept Pyeongchang at that time. Nonetheless, thanks to the enthusiasm of the athletes and the dedication of volunteers, the Pyeongchang Olympics have gone down in the books as a thrilling and successful edition of the Winter Olympics. Kim Minji, head of Jeonggangwon Korean Traditional Food Culture Experience Center in Yongpyeong-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, just a five-minute drive from Pyeongchang Interchange, looked back on the excitement of the Olympics.

“There has never been such interest from foreigners in Korean food as during the Olympics. Of course, the Olympics is a sporting event, but it also served as a fair that advertised traditional Korean food.”

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Kim Minji, who is used to spring coming late, masterfully served up traditional bibimbap, Jeonggangwon’s best-known dish. In a wooden bowl, on top of rice seasoned with sesame oils, she arranged 18 fresh ingredients, including seasoned aster, groundsel, pumpkin, seasoned thistle, bracken, and shiitake mushrooms, before crowning it with a carefully sliced fried egg. In the middle of the spring, especially May, spring vegetables such as chicory and spinach are a common addition.

These fresh ingredients are grown in the 3 300㎡ of land surrounding Jeonggangwon. Add gochujang – red chilli paste – and seaweed soup into the bowl and mix well, and there you have a bibimbap full of the joys of spring. Breathe in the full fragrance of the shiitake mushrooms as you put a spoonful of bibimbap in your mouth. Jeonggangwon does not use spring onions or garlic when seasoning because they can overpower the herbs. The seaweed soup served as a side is purported to aid digestion.

“Only the water in which the rice is rinsed and soy sauce are used. Boiled for 4-5 hours, the liquid becomes mild seaweed soup. It’s a great side dish to bring out all the flavours of bibimbap.”

There is also a multitude of side dishes – banchan – on the table. The kimchi pickled in 2017 and the ripened kimchi fermented since 2015 add a touch of elegance to the spread. Potatoes, a staple crop of Gangwon Province, boiled in spiced soy sauce also make it a fantastic side dish. Without a drop of water, the potatoes are boiled with soy sauce, syrup, and cooking oil for three hours to achieve a firm yet chewy texture that is spot on.

“The secret is in the high heat. When the heat is high, the moisture is pushed out of the potato and gets submerged in the broth, continue to boil it, and the result is a lovely sticky-textured potato.”

Anybody can prepare bibimbap without being taught, but Jeonggangwon’s traditional bibimbap is a cut above the average and meticulously made.

More than 700 jangdok – traditional Korean earthenware crocks – stand in formation, regimented, on the front terrace of Jeonggangwon. They contain ganjang(fermented soy sauce), doenjang(fermented soybean paste), makjang(fermented soybean paste, ready to eat within 2 weeks), and gochujang(red chili paste). Every year, Jeonggangwon boils 50 straw bags of beans to make blocks of fermented beans. The blocks are then floated, and saltwater poured over them to separate the soy sauce from the miso. When the new paste is made, it in turn is put in an empty crock. The paste tastes best after 3-5 years, at which point the moisture slowly disappears and the paste becomes salty.

There are two essential ingredients that go into Jeonggangwon’s paste. The first is salt, the second sincerity. Every year, Jeonggangwon buys 5 tons of sun-dried salt, which is stored in the salt warehouse while the bittern is removed. It takes 6-7 years before the bittern is completely absent. When all the bittern is gone, the salt becomes light and tastes sweet rather than salty. It is used to make the paste, as well as for cooking and seasoning. This salt is the linchpin of Jeonggangwon, which is why Jeonggangwon employees head to Shinan in South Jeolla Province every 4year to find good-quality salt.

“Every ingredient, including salt, is visually checked. It is difficult and, a lot of work, but preparing food is more about sincerity than skill, so I never give it up.”

It took about an hour by car from Pyeongchang to Gangneung, which was already firmly in the grips of spring. Cherry blossoms, the harbinger of spring, lined the shores of Lake Gyeongpo with pink. Beyond the cherry blossoms, Gangneung Ice Arena, which hosted the Pyeongchang Olympics ice-skating competition, comes into sight. Gangneung enjoys a milder climate than Pyeongchang and, as such, was a popular destination for visitors during the Olympics. It also attracted Korean spectators keen to watch the home team score big in the short-track speed-skating events.

We headed to Chodang Tofu Village near Lake Gyeongpo. Chodang is the nom de plume of Heo Yeop, father of Heo Gyun, a writer and civil magistrate in the middle of the Joseon Dynasty. The village started making tofu using the delicious springs in front of Heo’s house and seasoned with the clear seawater of Gangneung. When word spread about how delicious the tofu here is, the village became known as ‘Chodang Village,’ named after Heo. Naturally, the tofu was also name after him: Chodang tofu.

Tofu, made of beans, water and bittern, may be plain in shape and colour, but its manufacturing process is far from simple. White beans sit in water for 7-8 hours and are then finely ground on the millstone, before being put in a cotton sack that is twisted to push out the soy milk. This soy milk is then put in a pot and boiled while being gently stirred. When bittern is added evenly, the tofu blooms and coagulates. After setting it in a frame, it becomes tofu. The residue left in the sack forms bean-curd dregs, called bigi. Tofu that is yet to harden, is known as soft tofu.

Competition for a spot at Chodang Grandma Soft Tofu House, located in Chodang Tofu Village, is stiff, so the procedure is to take a numbered ticket on arrival and wait for your number to come up on the screen. After you place your order at the table, the food comes out sequentially – side dishes first and then mains. This system, reminiscent of factory production lines and modern restaurants, may be efficient, but I can’t help but feel a little sad that the restaurant has changed and is now a reflection of a somewhat impersonal modernised city.

Even though the interior design of the restaurant has changed, the flavour of the tofu has not. The most popular menu is the soft tofu set. The soft tofu was not only fragrant and fresh, but also seasoned well, so I didn’t feel the need to dip it in soy sauce. I also ordered half a steaming tofu and two large slabs of tofu arrived. They were full of flavour and light-textured. An added bonus: it was interesting to experience kimchi, radish kimchi, stir-fried anchovy and pickled sesame leaves on tofu. The bigi, served as a side dish, was nicely salty thanks to the salted shrimps it contained. In the miso soup, the fragrance of rural fermented beans was strong. I drank corn wine – makgeolli – alongside. The unique aroma and flavour of corn worked a treat with the tofu.

There are more than 50 recipes using tofu, including tofu hotpot, tofu pancake and braised tofu. Chodang Tofu Village is constantly innovating, regularly coming up with new dishes. When you take a spoonful of the soft tofu ice cream, the flavour of tofu and the ingredients of ice cream, including milk, egg and sugar, all melt together and dance in the mouth. All sorts of ice cream creations are on offer, such as Injeolmi, Gangneung Coffee, Pistachio, and Halla Green Tea.

Those looking for stronger flavours may want to line up at the Fairy Tale Garden, who specializes in Jjamppong Soft Tofu, for the Jjamsooni. What is so special about this menu is the silky texture of soft tofu, scooped from a spicy jjamppong noodle soup. The infinite transformation of soft tofu is by no means over.

I visited Gangneung Gamja Ongshimi, in Gangneung city centre, to soak up Gangwon Province’s old-world atmosphere. The restaurant, which called to mind my grandmother’s home in rural Korea, had a modest menu with four options: pure potato ongshimi, potato ongshimi noodle soup, potato dumplings and dongdongju. Once settled on my cushion on the floor, I ordered dongdongju: rice liquor. Served in an aged stainless-steel pot with a burnt wooden handle, it had a potent flavour.

After a couple of cups of dongdongju, I was served my pure potato ongshimi and potato ongshimi noodle soup. As I bit into the potato dumplings I immediately fell in love with the texture; by blending potatoes and mixing the residue to the starch, it gives the ongshimi a real crunch. The deeply satisfying soup is made by thoroughly boiling anchovy, seaweed, onion and kelp; topped off with endless sprinkles of sesame seeds. I was able to cut the hand-made noodles with different thicknesses with ease. Only after I had sated my appetite did I stop to take in the wall covered in graffiti and the antique furniture. Potatoes and corn, Gangwon Province’s staple crops, have been at the heart of the area’s meals for a very long time.

I headed out for Jumunjin Port as the sun was about to set. It took about 20 minutes by car from Lake Gyeongpo. Arrival at the harbour, we were greeted with a light drizzle, and the sea winds were up. People who had finished work gathered into the restaurants. Wolseong, a restaurant specialising in jangchi stew and moray soup, was extremely busy. Some might say jangchi (eelpout) and moray are two of the ugliest fish in the world. In the past nobody wanted to eat them, but that has now changed. Won Hyosik, the owner of Wolseong Restaurant, shook his head and said, “the price of moray is ridiculous.”

“The larger moray fish can grow to over a metre long. During the winter when a moray is harder to catch, it can cost up to 200,000 won(appx. USD 180) per fish!”

Moray should not be frozen. If it is frozen and melted, the flesh becomes spongy and loses its original texture. Needless to say, the fact it can only be eaten fresh is a factor that has driven up the price.

What is so special about the spicy moray soup here, boiling with moray with ripened kimchi removes the fishy taste from the soup. People who cannot eat other fish because of the distinct fishy taste will happily tuck into moray soup. Moray meat is as tender as soft tofu. The melt-in-the-mouth texture and light and seasoned taste of the moray are a great combination, and warming enough to take the chill off the cold air of the harbour. If you want a spicier moray soup, turn up the heat by adding cheongyang chilli pepper. You should be careful not to boil the moray soup too long when you put the pot on the gas burner to avoid the flesh falling off the bone and sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Many customers who come to Wolseong order the jangchi stew set: one small jangchi stew and one small moray soup. Spicy jangchi stew and mellow moray soup may sound like an unlikely combination but the taste is sensational. Putting jangchi and the sauce on top of Gangwon Province potatoes and sweet winter radish, and boiling it for 20-25 minutes. The stew is ready. The restaurant staff kindly explained how the dish is best enjoyed: the white flesh should be dipped in the braised broth. Another winning alliance is rice and shredded white radish with the soup. You will be surprised at how fast your two bowls of rice disappear when you proceed in this way! I asked to be let in on the secret recipe behind the sauce, but to no avail. Restaurant staff is sworn to secrecy.

In Korea they say the larger the fish, the stronger the smell. However, jangchi doesn’t smell that bad considering its size. The owner of the restaurant, Won Hyosik, said, “We dry our jangchi in the sea breeze for three days. You could say we mature it. That way, even if you steam it, it won’t lose its flesh, and the flavours will be enhanced.”

After my meal, I walked away with a full stomach. Embodied in dolls and on stickers, the Pyeongchang Olympic mascots, Suhorang and Bandabi, waved brightly from all around the harbour. The ship preparing to sail turned on all her lights, as the crews diligently loaded their cargo. Dried food merchants opened their shops until late and bargained with their customers. Those who sell goods and those who buy goods laughed together as the night grew darker at the harbour. The Olympics may be over, but Gangwon Province is more dynamic than before. Spring has come to Gangwon-do.

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Published  2019.04.30

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