The vast sandy beach was spread out in front of the car window. Over the beach, the blue sea continuously pushed the white sea foam to the land. The sand warmed by the sunshine was already occupied by the people came out for early holidays. With the background of blue horizon that cannot differentiate the sky and the sea, a girl in white dress romped around, smiling. All these were how the city of Busan welcomed a stranger came 400 kilometers from Seoul.
Busan, with its 3.4 million populations, is the second largest city in the Republic of Korea, following the largest city of Seoul. It is a place where the sea and the land, the fishing villages and the skyscrapers are harmoniously located in. In Haeundae and Gwanganri, there are majestic high buildings that sport 70-80 floors. At the docks around the buildings, white yachts were waiting their owners for coming and the Gwangandaegyo Bridge, a 7.4km bridge on the sea, surged to make climax in the cityscape.
“It’s a city of passion,” said Manager Ahn Changgyu of Geumsubokguk, a Puffer fish restaurant located just 5 minutes from Haeundae beach, “every corner of the city is full of spectacles and delicacies. Regardless of season and time, people visit Busan to enjoy. This is the reason that Geumsubokguk is open round the clock.”
It was three o’clock, well over lunch time. However, there were a lot of people in the restaurant. At every table, Puffer Fish Stew and delicious side dishes were set. “Even during hot summer, most people order Puffer Fish Stew. Puffer fish menus are never seasonal, as it boosts energy.”
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I have long been waiting for chance to appreciate a variety of Puffer fish cuisine, from sashimi to stew. I took a seat and ordered my food. Sliced Raw Puffer Fish was served first. Very thin slices of raw Puffer fish was decorated with edible gold dust and arranged delicately on the dish. When adorned with dried fin, a crane with widespread wings was made on the plate. Having a nibble on it, mouth was filled with euphoria of chewy texture without fishy smell. The manager hinted on the secret that “when Puffer fish is matured for 8-12 hours at a low temperature, it gets chewy and savory.”
The finishing touch to Sliced Raw Puffer Fish is the sauce. Citron sauces (Ponzu sauce) that the restaurant chef made and ground daikon were mixed with soy sauce that was also made by the chef of Geumsubokguk. Two types of daikon were used; daikon oroshi, grated daikon radish, and momiji oroshi, grated daikon with red chili. Grated daikon in white and red, soy sauce in black, garnished with small green onion and lemon, is like a colorful artwork in a small bowl cup. The regular customers eat the raw fish slice rolled up with small green onion and dipped with sauce. “Sauce is left to age for about ten days to allow the flavor to extract.” In order to get paired with the splendid dish of Sliced Raw Puffer Fish, even sauce required a lot of efforts.
Following Sliced Raw Puffer Fish, Deep-fried Puffer Fish, Seasoned Puffer Fish Skin, Puffer Fish Tartare were served. It is no exaggeration to call the table the “Avengers of Puffer Fish Dishes.” As puffer fish live in the cold water, the meat features firm texture. Therefore, the slice needs to be very thin for chewy texture.
The new menu of Geumsubokguk launched this year, Puffer Fish Tartare is sliced raw puffer fish seasoned with special sauce. The recipe for the special sauce is a secret. Red radish sprouts are served with Puffer Fish Tartare in the same dish. The slightly bitter taste makes a perfect match with Puffer Fish Tartare. For more palatable experience, roll the slice with sea weed and dip it into black sesame sauce. At first, it is just aromatic. When chewing up, the hidden horseradish (Wasabi) suddenly occupies the taste buds. The black sesame sauce’s charm of twist determines the success of Puffer Fish Tartare.
In the other dish, Seasoned Puffer Fish Skin enticed gourmet with the spicy aroma. Seasoned Puffer Fish Skin is so rich in collagen that it is very popular among female gastrologers. It is also good as a snack with drinks. Puffer fish skin is seasoned with red chili-pepper paste with vinegar, along with cucumber, onion, carrot, and red cabbage. Of course, the recipe is a family secret. Kim Geun Uk, a puffer fish experts at Geumsubokguk said, “fine bones on the skin are thoroughly removed and the fish is dried after slightly blanched,” on the recipe.
Puffer fish skin, cucumber, onion, and carrot were picked up with chopsticks and put on a spoon. The ingredients coated with chili-pepper paste with vinegar danced in the mouth with harmony. Especially, the skin had the presence with the jelly-like texture. I found that the puffer fish skin would be categorized into two types; back skin in dark color was very chewy, however, white belly was soft. “When cooking Seasoned Puffer Fish Skin, we use Green Rough-backed Puffer. The skin of Striped Puffer is too rough that we can’t make Seasoned Puffer Fish Skin.”
Taking on this and that of puffer fish, we began eating Deep-fried Puffer Fish. Marinated Tiger Puffer is deep-fried in starch and curry powder was subtly added for perfection. Green tea salt and soy sauce are served so that one can choose. A bite reminded me of fried chicken. If this were a blind test, it would have been difficult to tell. The crude liquor made at the restaurant was the icing on the cake. The crude liquor with 17 kinds of herbs is an oriental medicine drink with the alcoholicity of 1.5%. With the thick and heavy aroma of traditional beverages, such as Black Herbal Tea and Persimmon Punch, I felt as if I was in an old-fashioned tavern. Along with Deep-fried Puffer Fish, I drank glasses of liquor and emptied a jar.
I could not resist licking fingers covered with curry powder. At that time, the last dish of the day, Puffer Fish Stew, was served. Sliced radish was placed on the bottom. Then, bean sprout, water parsley, enokitake mushroom, leek, and puffer fish were put and boiled. A spoonful of soup sent the fairly hot sensation through chest and stomach, via throat. I uttered an exclamation of “Oh!” with the feeling. The very clean taste of radish went well with puffer fish.
While Puffer Fish Stew is the main dish of Haeundae, sea eel takes the center stage in Gijang-gun in the Northern Busan. Approximately 20 minutes by car from Haeundae beach, Gongsu village appears after Songjeong beach. There are many sea eel restaurants in this village and the town is nicknamed “Sea eel Hamlet.”
I visited Wonjo Jipbul Gijang Gomjangeo Oegajip (Granny’s Straw Fire Sea eel Grill) among many sea eel restaurants. Smoke was rising up from the fireplace by the gate. The restaurant owner Lee Tae Yong put six to seven sea eels alive on the gill and lit fire on the dried straw. The fire was even taller than a man. The flame covered the sea eels at 700〫c and the eel skin, which is said to be even tougher than cowhide, was burned to reveal white flesh. Lee insists cooking with fire on dried straw because “the scent of straw fire removes fishy smell and enhances grilled flavor. This also makes juicy accent of sea eel meat.” I briefly appreciate the amusing “fire show” at the fireplace and entered the main Hanok (Korean-style house) restaurant building.
I ordered Straw Fire-grilled Sea Eel and Marinated and Grilled Sea Eel and the server advised that it would be better to start with Straw Fire-grilled Sea Eel. Well-roasted Sea Eel was served on the hot plate soon. The sound of crunch biting and the rich aroma of straw fire amused the mouth. It is even better with sesame oil sauce with coarse salt. I wrapped sea eel, garlic, doenjang paste, Cheongyang red pepper pickle in perilla leaf and lettuce. Putting this Ssam in the mouth and chewing about twice, the aromatic juice of sea eel dominated the ingredients. “Wow, this is what I wanted!” I was delighted.
While I devoured Ssam with Straw Fire-grilled Sea Eel, Marinated and Grilled Sea Eel was cooked on the gas burner by the table. The skinned sea eel, onion, and leek were soaked in the red seasoning, which is the restaurant owner’s secret recipe. “The seasoning must be permeated in the sea eel. It needs to be roasted until the onion is done.”
I tried a piece of Marinated and Grilled Sea Eel with onion. The seasoning was pretty sweet, like Squid and Pork Belly Bulgogi. Not just spicy, literally sweet and spicy. I guess the sweetness came from onion. Although it is marinated with the red seasoning, the fishy smell was thicker than Straw Fire-grilled Sea Eel. Is this the reason that sea eel must be cooked with straw fire?
When the sea eel feast is over, the sunset glow graced the sky. The red sky dyed the sea in orange and soon, the black waves were sparkling with the moonshine. Busan is a sleepless city. Another aspect of Busan is awakened at night to sing a night song.
At Seomyeon Station, six subway stations from Busan station, the boisterous night songs were heard. Seomyeon, where youngsters of Busan gather for dining and drinking binge, looks similar to Hongdae and Itaewon of Seoul. Listening to the exciting music, I walked for approximately 10 minutes and was faced with “Choi Tuna,” an owner-chef Sashimi restaurant run by Chef Choi. The 40㎡ (12 pyeong) cozy space surrounded by woods looked like a cottage by the sea. Chef Choi Byeong Jun’s skillful knife work was performed beyond the bar table. “I just bought 300kg tuna, a decent one.” Chef Choi’s smile reflected his confidence on the ingredient he thoroughly chose.
Salmon salad was served first when I ordered tuna belly menu. The coral color of salmon and green vegetable leaflets formed enjoyable colors that seemed to by delicious. Tuna bone soup served together overwhelmed the mood. Boiled tuna bone added with Welsh onion and black pepper perfectly removed fishy smell. If I were not informed, I would have regarded it as Beef Bone Soup. It is said that there are some regular customers come to enjoy this tuna bone soup.
Tuna bone soup is a ritual to get prepared for tuna sashimi. Tuna sashimi was served. More than 20 pieces of red tuna sashimi on a black plate seduced chopsticks. Big belly meat took the leading role supported by diced mid-belly meat and sliced belly button meat. I put Wasabi on big belly meat and dipped it into soy sauce served in small bowl with flower pattern. The aromatic and fatty belly meat was melting on tongue, like snow melting on a spring day. Mid-belly meat was tightly slashed with a knife to fine-tune the texture. The chewy bite was a masterpiece.
I asked Chef Choi that if it is all to secure good ingredient when it comes to tuna sashimi. Without hesitation, the chef said no. “A capable chef can even enhance the flavor of tuna sashimi.” He gave me three keys; defrosting, aging, and knife skill. The quality of tuna sashimi differs based on the methods of defrosting and aging. He did not disclose his own know-how. The knife skill means that the slashes should be made along the grain. In other words, the taste will be decided upon how much a chef understands about tuna.
When he was an elementary school student, he was interested in cooking and he was a member of the school cooking club. Only with a knife, he built experiences in Korea, Spain, France, and Japan. Back in Korea, he opened a restaurant with his own name. Tuna is his old friend who accompanied his travel all over the world.
After guzzling tuna belly sashimi, I was finishing this feast with belly button sashimi. A dish with four pieces of sushi was served. This time, salmon and prawn with grilled flavor were served together. “They taste better when eaten with hands,” the chef advised. I eat them with hands, one by one. The sticky but bouncy rice was imbued with oily tuna belly. Suddenly, they popped together. The grilled flavor of salmon and prawn functioned as finishing the oily taste from tuna belly meat.
On the next day, still feeling a bit dizzy from drinking, I went to Chinatown located across from Busan Station. Passing through the grandeur Chinese gate in red, little China appeared in the city of Busan. I headed toward Jangseonghyang, a dumpling restaurant that achieved stardom thanks to the movie Oldboy. The leading actor of the film, Choi Min-sik had to gobble up the dumpling for 15 years, putting up with unspeakable hardship. In May 2004, the movie directed by Park Chan-wook won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. In May this year, 15 years from the day, Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite won the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. I thought this was the reason to enjoy dumplings.
When the dumplings were served, I could not but doubt my eyes at the enormous size. It was as big as the palm of an adult man, 2.5 times bigger than a general fried dumpling. I got myself all psyched up and took a mouthful of the dumpling. What an exemplary case of “crunchy outside, juicy inside!” Fried dumplings served at Chinese restaurants usually have thicker skin and the dumpling here has particularly thicker skin. Cabbage, green bean sprouts, Welsh onion, and minced meat are in the stuffing. The juice naturally came out from ingredients fulfilled the mouth. As the dumplings were adequately seasoned, there was no need for soy sauce. It was a match made in heaven with beer. Five dumplings are served on a plate. I failed to finish a plate. The restaurant owner put the rest in a takeout bag for me. The price is 7000 won for five dumplings, 9000 won for seven. The price is as charming as the taste.
I left Chinatown, with a black plastic bag of dumplings in a hand. The midday Sun warmed the atmosphere of Busan and shades of the city generated cool breeze. Passing through Busan Station, I continued walking. Then, I arrived at Busan Port International Passenger Terminal. A luxurious cruiser was approaching, hailed by seagulls. Passengers waved their hand from the deck, waiting for the encounter with Busan. The cruiser greeted with the vibrant sound of boat horn, passing under Busan Port Bridge. “Hello, Busan!”
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