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2012 Travel Diary #14: Mugwort pancakes and bronze age dolmen

Tongyeong and Sancheong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Wednesday 28 March 2012. It’s time to leave Tongyeong, and head off to Sancheong, where I have happily spent much of my time in Korea in recent years. We set off along the main Tongyeong to Seoul expressway, which passes alongside the Gyeonghogang river and thus cuts through the heart of Sancheong County. I am told little about plans for the rest of the day, other than that there’s lunch at a temple and then we’re going to the house of potter Min Young-ki for dinner and to stay overnight. On arriving in Sancheong Town, we stop at a florist to make suitable purchases for the monks and Min Young-ki’s wife.

We proceed along ever-narrowing country roads to Anjeoksa, a small temple in the eastern part of Sancheong-gun – and home to some of the best cooking, which is of course vegetarian.

Making lanterns for Buddha's birthday at Anjeoksa, Sanjeong-gun
Making lanterns for Buddha’s birthday at Anjeoksa, Sanjeong-gun

We park in the temple courtyard and make our way to a building opposite the main shrine. Inside, lunch is being prepared in the kitchen, while on the floor some ajummas, chatting happily, prepare the lanterns for Buddha’s birthday, more than one month hence. Initially it had looked a bit like a drinking party, but what I had originally assumed were bowls of magkeolli were in fact pots of glue which was being brushed on to the brightly-coloured paper petals for pasting onto the white plastic globes of the lanterns themselves.

Mugwort pancakes, sour green plums, nuts, herbs and leaves - a delicious temple lunch
Mugwort pancakes, sour green plums, nuts, herbs and leaves – a delicious temple lunch

It is the beginning of spring, the time when mugwort is particularly plentiful, and so the centrepiece of our lunch is ssukjeon – pancakes made of mugwort and only just enough batter to hold the leaves together. Very fragrant, almost pungent: a quite unique taste.

Mugwort is one of the most important herbs in Korean cuisine and mythology, making an appearance in Korea’s foundation myth, the story of Tangun. The Buddhist blog Wake up and Laugh tells the story:

Around 2,400 B.C.E., a female bear and a tigress shared the same cave. Together they prayed to the heavenly king to become human beings. The king took mercy on them and said that if they could stay secluded out of the sunlight, and eat only garlic and mugwort for one hundred days, they would be transformed into human beings. He gave them garlic and mugwort, and they entered the cave. There they stayed, eating only garlic and mugwort. It wasn’t too long before the tiger began to have more and more difficulty with this. Soon she couldn’t resist the desire to roam and eat meat, and left the cave. The bear continued to eat the mugwort and garlic, and after just 21 days was transformed into a human being. Later, after marrying a heavenly prince, she gave birth to Tangun.

I could be a vegetarian if I lived at a temple. The little mugwort pancakes were accompanied with various delicately spiced roots, leaves, seeds, berries, acorn paste, green plums and herbs. With red bean rice and a doenjang broth, this was a meat-free meal fit for a king. Thank you to the monks of Anjeoksa (안적사) for some of the best food ever.

Elegant blossom decorates the tray for the post-lunch tea ceremony
Elegant blossom decorates the tray for the post-lunch tea ceremony

After lunch I am taken on a whistle-stop tour of various offices in Sancheong Town. It’s time to show my face as Sancheong’s goodwill ambassador. First stop is the offices of the organisation committee for the 2013 Donguibogam Expo, to be held in September and October next year. A photographer is there and I realise that, in between pleasantries with the officials about the knowledge (or lack of it) of Korean traditional medicine in the UK, I am being interviewed by the local press. An article appears later that week on a couple of local news websites, along with a shiny-faced photograph which shows how much I’ve caught the sun in Tongyeong.

Carrying lanterns to the temple after lunch
Carrying lanterns to the temple after lunch

Next, a visit to the traditional medicine institute, who play a leading role in the annual medicinal herb festival in Sancheong, which draws upwards of 1 million visitors in one week at the beginning of May. And finally, a quick courtesy call on the mayor, who is deep in conversation with the general manager of the Korea Elevator Safety Corporation. Clearly, health and safety is taken seriously in Sancheong.

In front of the Sancheong Herbal Medicine Institute
In front of the Sancheong Herbal Medicine Institute

We chat about my visit, and he is keen to correct one misconception I have about Korea’s most famous composer, Yun Isang. Contrary to what it says in most English language sources, Yun was not born in Tongyeong. He was born in Sancheong, very near where Nammyeong Jo Shik made his home in Sicheon-myeon, within sight Cheonwangbong, the bell-shaped peak of Jirisan. I make dutiful notes for inclusion in my blog later. I finally manage to lighten my suitcase a little, presenting (somewhat regretfully) a bottle of 18-year old Glenlivet for his later enjoyment.1

L to R: Lee Jae-geun (mayor of Sancheong), with Yun Isang's widow, daughter and son, during a visit to Yun's home town in Sancheong County, 2007
L to R: Lee Jae-geun (mayor of Sancheong), with Yun Isang’s widow, daughter and son, during a visit to Yun’s home town in Sancheong County, 2007 (Photo provided by Sancheong County Office)

My duties over, it’s time to head, slowly, to our dinner appointment. We go via the house of my local friend, Kyung-sook, and I manage to offload more goodies from my suitcase: a couple of pounds of cheese – black bomber cheddar (an extra-mature hard cheese encased in a black wax), some Cornish Yarg, which comes wrapped in nettles, and some good, old-fashioned stilton.

Just along the valley from her house is an interesting area where pre-historic dolmen dot the landscape – thirty-five of them according to local documentation.

Some of the bronze age dolmen in Teuk-ri, Geumseo-myeon, Sancheong-gun
Some of the bronze age dolmen in Teuk-ri, Geumseo-myeon, Sancheong-gun

Jiseongmyo (지석묘) or goindol (고인돌) (dolmen) are a typical tomb style from the Korean Bronze Age. According to Wikipedia2 the Korean peninsula contains the largest concentration of dolmen in the world – nearly 40% of the total. Korean dolmen are divided into two types. The more familiar of the two is the Northern Style, constructed by raising two or more supporting stones over a stone burial chamber, on top of which is placed a large flat capstone in the manner resembling a table or a squat goal-mouth. The other type, called the southern style, was constructed by covering the underground burial chamber with small supporting stones over which another capstone was laid in the manner said to resemble a baduk board.

More of the dolmen in Teuk-ri
More of the dolmen in Teuk-ri

The dolmen here are in the more humble southern style, looking like simple boulders that could have got there by accident. But they are important enough to have been listed as a provincial cultural treasure.3 Their stark shapelessness give the flat landscape a melancholy feeling.

We arrive finally at Min Young-ki’s house, and visit his studio. I am privileged to be given a sneak preview of some of the tea bowls he is thinking of exhibiting at his upcoming show at the Mitsukoshi Department Store Gallery in Tokyo. Next week his former teacher will be paying a visit, and between them they will make a final selection of the works.

Min Young-ki's house in Sancheong-gun
Min Young-ki’s house in Sancheong-gun

Dinner is served in the central room of his elegant house. Along with Mr Min and his wife, we are joined by his student, his son, Mr Yoon from the county office, and the director of the herbal medicine institute. I can see Mr Min’s wife has been working very hard: countless side dishes and some beautifully marbled beef which we grill at the table. And when eventually the beef stops coming, and we’ve managed to scrape the rice bowls clean, there’s a soup of freshwater fish and mugwort, which is practically impossible to fit in to our already over-full stomachs. And all the while the soju is flowing, together with a brown-coloured herbal alcohol which is reputed to be a cure for grey hairs. I’m not sure whether the desired effect is achieved by taking it internally or externally, but the next morning the hangover is fierce.

Further links:

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  1. I later discover that the preferred tipple in Korea is a blended (but much more expensive) whisky – 30 year old Ballantine. []
  2. accessed 20 April 2012 []
  3. Gyeongsangnam-do Culture Treasure No. 162. Date of Designation: Jan. 30, 1997. Location: Teuk-ri, Geumseo-myeon, Sancheong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do. []

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