My second food tour in South Korea brought me down to Jeollanam – the Southern tip of South Korea. This food tour was sponsored by Hansik – the Korean Food Foundation. My team was called The Nakji Hunters – chosen by our team leader Juanita Hong. We visited a number of towns during my trip and although the trip was lots of work (we were being filmed by KBS and camera work for a documentary is much harder than I imagined…especially when most people speak a foreign language) – the trip was still a great success. I met many people in Jeollanam and learned much about Korean cuisine and culture.
We rode in a charter bus around the region. Our first day was spent at a seafood market in Mokpo. During our visit to the market we were able to see live fish and then enjoy some fresh seafood. The restaurant used every piece of the fish during our visit and the owner mentioned that in Korean culture they do not believe in wasting food – so the parts of the fish that were not used as sashimi we used in a fish soup and then also as side dishes or banchan in Korean. The banchan were numerous and indeed Jeollanam is known for its lavish and tasty variety of banchan.
The most interesting thing I tried was a bloody clam – it was slimy and actually not as bad as I imagined, although I am unsure if I would try it again without some other kind of sauces mixed in.
The sashimi was made Korean style and tasted good, but didn’t quite melt in my mouth like I hoped it would. The seaport itself had a great view of the water and our hotel, the Muan Beach Hotel, had a beautiful beach-front view at sunset.
After we settled into our hotel, we departed to a town where a man is famous for making octopus or nakji in Korean. He brought out live nakji and together we made the nakji that is traditionally used by Koreans for funeral processions and other ceremonies. Nakji is very expensive (just one can cost at least 25,000 won or more).
The restaurant owner has cooked nakji for more than 17 years and showed us his techniques and how to make nakji soup and nakji on a stick. We also tried nakji raw – which I found to be unappetizing but some of my teammates enjoyed. I was a little disturbed by the nakji and I am sure many foreigners might feel the same way during their first encounter – but for Koreans this just another one of their delicacies and I think learning about that was an important and valuable experience.
After we finished we retired to our hotel and then woke the next day and headed to meet a fisherman who was going to take us hunting for nakji (hence our name The Nakji Hunters). This was a true workout during a chilly day, but one of the best experiences of our trip. We headed out with our boots and raincoats into a boat that brought us to mud islands where nakji wash up in the early morning.
The fisherman (full of energy) ran around the island with us chasing behind (shovels in hand) and guided us to the small mounds where the nakji are trapped in mud. Nakji eventually escape into the water from the mud and it was essential that we work as fast as possible before they all made it back to sea.
We managed to catch nine nakji. When you step on the mounds they are trapped in, the surrounding water releases and if you dig in the middle you will find a nakji sitting in the middle of the mud. You use your hands to pick it out of the ground. The feeling of a nakji on your hand is an experience itself and I think many travelers to Korea would be interested in this. Some Koreans eat the nakji whole after discovering it, but I decided to hold-off on that, feeling adventurous enough with the blood clams the day before.
Once we left the fisherman behind we headed to a Traditional Korean Market where we visited stands and eventually sold our nakji and seafood off to local townspeople. It was a fun experience and elderly lady managed to haggle down the price of our fish to just 3,000 won! A lesson was learned: never haggle with the elderly – they are experienced.
After our experience we headed to a Korean meat shop and purchased Korean beef and mushrooms for dinner. It had to have been one of the best meals of our trip. One of the Hansik employees posted a photograph on Twitter of my huge smile as I devoured the food. The quality of the meat was superb and during my interview I noted that Westerners would love to have the experience to purchase and make their own meat in this self-cook Korean style. The meat rivaled the taste of some steakhouses I have tried in Tampa and that means a lot since Tampa is the home of Outback Steakhouse and highly esteemed Bern’s Steakhouse – as most of you readers are aware.
After dinner we headed to Boseong and retired in a traditional Korean house there right on the tea farm. We met with the employees on our film and Korea crew and had some late-night snacks while playing some Korean games before heading to bed. We awoke early the next morning to head to the Daehan Boseong Tea Plantation.
The plantation was absolutely beautiful when we awoke in the morning and headed outside. The valley was stunning and although the key blooming season for the fields is in spring and summer – the leaves were still surviving through the autumn. We walked through the field as the camera crew filmed us and discussed some of the health properties of green tea that has made it become famous through the world. You can read some more about my experience on Hansik’s website.
Our last stop was at a Boseong restaurant, Che Heom Jang, that specializes in dishes made from a patented green tea extract. The restaurant owner guided us through the process of making green tea kimchi, a dish that was excellent and unknown even to many Korean people I know in Seoul. The beauty of green tea is it neutralizes the smell that kimchi tends to acquire over time and also tastes great. We put oysters inside the kimchi to enhance the taste even further.
The two women at the restaurant also guided us through other dishes and one looked especially cool in her traditional Korean outfit called a hanbok. We made green tea rice cakes and also green tea rice balls among other dishes and enjoyed several green tea banchan including a nakji soup with green tea thrown inside. Being a huge fan of green tea since my childhood, this experience was special to me and brought me some new understanding about Korean cuisine being innovative and working hard to attempt new heights.
I felt the green tea restaurant was a fitting end to our journey and as we boarded our charter bus back to Seoul – I headed back home with a new perspective about Korean food and culture that I will carry with me as I experience many new foods in the future.
Make sure you check out our Tumblr at http://www.thenakjihunters.tumblr.com and our Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/thenakjihunters for more updates and insights on Korean food and culture and look for the KBS2 documentary to air in the near future on Korean television!