Korea is a foodie paradise, and while you can get by very nicely on bibimbap and bulgogi, there’s so much more to discover. Here’s some of the treats I discovered down south on my recent trip – and thanks to Suzy in Seoul for some of the recommendations for Tongyeong, given over some splended smoked duck bulgogi in Daehakro.
Dodarissukguk (도다리쑥국: flounder and mugwort soup)
Thanks to Suzy Chung for this recommendation. It was definitely mugwort season when I visited – you could see it sprouting in the woodlands and people were harvesting it to make this soup, or pancakes. The mild taste of the fish was offset by the fragrant herb for a very tasty dish, to be eaten any time of day. But we had ours for breakfast, from one of the harbourside shops outside the main fish market.
Update: Those of you who are keen to try this splendid dish might want to know some of its key ingredients. Don’t be put off. According to the JoongAng Daily:
The recipe for the fish soup with mugwort is pretty simple. Only male fish are used because the soup is complete when the creature’s semen is added, which gives it a deeper and richer taste.
Only fresh ridged-eye flounder, mugwort and a little bit of pepper is needed. A pinch of salt or a spoonful of soybean paste can be used to season the soup.
No matter how long the soup is boiled, the texture of the fish remains chewy without becoming soggy.
Meonggae (sea squirt) Bibimbap (멍게비빔밥)
Sea squirts come a bright orange colour, and they look pretty ugly. It’s therefore good, for those who are squeamish in this way, to have them ready chopped up in little pieces. The sea squirt in this particular bibimbap was still icy-cold, the fragments of ice giving a crispness to the texture. Mixed with hot rice, the whole dish tasted of the sea.
My companion asked for some gochujang to stir into the mixture. This didn’t go down well with the ajumma, but nevertheless after eating most of my bibimbap unadulterated I stirred in some of the red paste for my final few mouthfuls. On balance, the ajumma was right.
We got our meonggae bibimbap at a place on the road which leads to Yonghwasa on Mireukdo, almost next to the Jeon Hyuck-lim art museum. We didn’t need to ask what the menu was.
Chungmu Kimbap (충무 김밥)
You get this in plastic packets in motorway service stations, but having it fresh from a kimbap jib in Tongyeong’s harbour, right by the replicas of Yi Sun-shin’s turtle ships, is a preferable experience. Chungmu is the name of a town that was absorbed into Tongyeong in 1994, and also the posthumous name given to great generals such as national hero Yi Sun-shin.
With most kimbap the laver contains vegetables, fish or kimchi along with the rice, but with Chungmu kimbap it’s just rice. The rice is served hot, and the restaurant wraps the laver round it, and serves it with spicy baby octopus (꼴뚜기 무침) and a radish kimchi (무김치), with a side order of soup. Eat with plenty of soju for a quick snack in between concerts at the Tongyeong International Music Festival only 10 minutes walk away1.
And here are some Tongyeong treats I didn’t have time to sample, suggested by March’s Seoul Magazine:
Kkulppang (꿀빵, honey bread)
Bobby McGill of Busan Haps Magazine says: “This sticky treat comes in a variety of types, all with sweet bean paste in the middle. Remember to ask for a lot of napkins.” There were loads of shops and stalls on the harbour front that were selling these, but I was watching my waistline and never got around to trying one.
If you catch a boat to any of Tongyeong’s outlying islands you can’t miss all the oyster farms – and Tongyeong is said to produce 70% of Korea’s oysters. So it’s the obvious seafood to eat when visiting. Alas, there were not enough meals in the day for me to fit in any oyster dishes, and it was getting towards the end of the end of the oyster season.
But the same article from Bobby McGill in Seoul Magazine recommends guljeon (굴전: oyster pancakes, above) and gulbap (굴밥: bibimbap with oysters, below). Something to try next time.
- Most of the images are mine, but as I never got to sample any honey bread or Tongyeong oysters I had to plunder the Net for images of those dishes. So here are the credits for those photos which are not mine: Honey bread | Oysters | Oyster pancakes | Oyster bibimbap
- though from 2014 the festival moves on to Mireukdo so that option will no longer be available [↩]