Sancheong: the name of the county literally means Mountain Purity. So the foods of the region use ingredients from the mountains – especially fresh herbs – and the clean rivers. Here are some of the foods I have sampled during the course of a few visits to the county:
While fruits are not unique to any particular county, Sancheong is known for two in particular:
Whether eaten fresh, after a main meal, or dried (perhaps frozen too) as a snack to have with tea, the mild taste of persimmon is very popular in Sancheong. Sancheong dried persimmons have been given as a special gift to the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II.
Persimmon juice is even turned into a colourful salad dressing – refreshingly different for the summer months.
You can’t escape the strawberry in Sancheong. Wherever you look, where the land is reasonably flat, you will see long polytunnels filled with strawberries, which are virtually an all-year-round crop.
Mountain herbs and roots – medicinal or otherwise
Sancheong’s status as a centre for medicinal herbs is well-established, with its annual festival at the beginning of May (see LKL’s article about the festival in 2010). But just because they’re good for you doesn’t mean they’re not tasty too. Here are a couple of herbal dishes familiar in Sancheong.
Mugwort pancakes (쑥전) and other tasty temple food
I could be a vegetarian if I lived at a temple. Little mugwort pancakes 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.
Sipjeondaebo Oribaeksuk (십전대보 오리백숙: Great Restorative Duck Stew with Ten Perfect Ingredients)
A bit of a mouthful to say, and several mouthfuls to eat. This is a rich casserole in a thick gloopy black sauce of mushrooms, medicinal herbs and nuts, cooked until the flesh virtually falls off the bone. Later comes red bean rice, and another bowl of the gloopy sauce to drink as a soup. All packed with herbal goodness. It’s a dish which has to be tackled with both chopsticks and spoon to make sure none of the juices are wasted. Served at this particular Sancheong restaurant with soju matured in bamboo vats for twelve years. A very special feast.
Produce from Sancheong’s rivers
I haven’t managed to figure out what a 피리 is in English. These tasty little freshwater fish, the size of a sardine, can be eaten whole, head and all, but for those who aren’t that brave the flesh can be picked from the bones. The chilli gunge it came with was excellent, and you could almost detect the taste of India in the mix of spices.
Freshwater maeuntang (매운탕)
Most Maeuntang is made with sea fish. But the variety on offer in the parade of restaurants in Saengcho [map] on the banks of the Gyeongho River (경호강) is made from freshwater fish. The broth is extra spicy (what IS the etiquette when your nose is running and you’re beginning to perspire a bit from the heat?) and the fragrance of the dried sancho herb that you stir in for extra seasoning adds that touch of magic. It’s fine to have this with makgeolli, but it’s equally good with beer (yes, even Korean beer).
Daseulgi (다슬기: freshwater snails)
Well, we eat snails in posh French restaurants, and these Korean freshwater snails are much tastier and less rubbery. You don’t need to swamp them in garlic & herb butter for there to be any taste. Daseulgi is the more proper name for these shellfish (and if you are getting technical, their scientific name is Semisulcospira libertina), though sometimes they are called godong (고동).
You boil them and eat them straight from the shell: use the toothpick to spear the flesh, and twist the shell with the other hand to get the jade green little creature out.
The water in which they were cooked goes a beautiful colour and makes a nice broth or soup.
Cold, they make a good salad with a gochujang sauce.
And in a soup with little sujebi (수제비) dumplings they are divine. You only get these little snails in the purest of river water, I was told. They look so pretty, and taste very special.
Sancheong is also known for its rice, and the county supplies the Blue House with its rice.
Mettugi rice (메뚜기쌀: literally, grasshopper rice)
So what is grasshopper rice? Surely not rice you eat with grasshoppers?
The answer is that it’s an organic rice grown without the use of pesticides. The way you can tell it’s organic is that the farm has lots of grasshoppers chomping away on the leaves of the rice plants.
Dongdongju (동동주) with Mushroom pancake
Even when ice cold, with little shards of ice suspended in it, a good dongdongju (a form of Makgeolli) soon brings warmth and colour to the cheeks. Creamy good. In this particular restaurant the side dish was a mushroom pajeon. A combination which is the ultimate in comfort food. (I didn’t manage to capture the pancake because I ate it too fast. It sure tasted good after a rain-soaked descent from Jirisan.)
Tokkitang (토끼탕: rabbit stew)
My hosts were nervous about whether a foreigner would be prepared to eat bunnies. But rabbit stews aren’t unheard of in England, so I was quite content to try it out, and was glad I did. One reservation: boy, are these little critters bony. But the meat tasted good, and the broth was super-spicy. It went well with the creamy-tasting dongdongju. And the dongdongju tasted so good that we took away several bottles to see us through 이 차 and 삼 차.
Another treat was top quality beef from cows fed on pine needles and medicinal herbs. Made for a great bulgogi.
Pork from Black Pigs
I’ve yet to try Sancheong pork, but its fat is said to have a higher melting point than ordinary pigs. What impact that has on the cooking I’m not sure. Here’s the publicity material:
“Black pigs raised in the clean, unspoiled environment of Sancheong are of the native variety bred in this area for a long time. Pork obtained from these black pigs contains a high amount of non-saturated fat helpful for preventing adult diseases. Highly popular as a well-being food, Sancheong pork has a rich flavour and a delightful texture”
Next time then I’m going to have to try some Sancheong Sampgyeopsal.