LOVE AT FIRST BITE
I will never forget the moment I fell in love with Korea. I can recall it vividly. The first week living in any foreign country is an exhilarating yet disorienting experience. The new language, alien culture and bizarre customs are fascinating, mind-boggling and overwhelming. An Englishman’s first visit to a Korean supermarket is bewildering; where is the cream, cheese, cereal and bread? At the end of my first week living in Korea, having survived on a diet chiefly consisting of instant noodles, I was invited by my co-workers to a barbecue pork restaurant. As a chef, the first thing that struck me was the immense pleasure and excitement involved in cooking the food at your own table. What an immersive and sensory experience! You use your hands, you have control, you gaze at the thick pork belly slowly caramelizing to a tempting golden brown, squeaking and sizzling, fat popping though billowing clouds of meaty, aromatic smoke.
I took my first morsel of juicy pork, dunked it in the nutty-rich sesame oil, added a crunchy slice of kimchi and a tangy pickled sesame leaf, then wrapped it all up in a piece of crispy, fresh lettuce. The table went quiet. I popped the little parcel in my mouth…BANG!! My taste buds exploded. The hairs on the back of my neck shot up and my skin tingled from head to toe. A broad smile spread across my face. “I am going to love this country” I blurted out, mouth still stuffed, much to the amusement of my co-workers. It was true. That moment was the beginning of my love affair with both Korea and its cuisine. I haven’t looked back since.
FROM TOILET TO TREASURED
Jeju black pork (흑돼지 – heuk dweji) is undoubtedly the most famous local culinary speciality the island has to offer. It is responsible for Jeju’s burgeoning reputation as a mecca for BBQ pork lovers from Korea, Asia and the world beyond. This small species of pig, with black skin and a smooth coat of hair, is indigenous to the island and boasts a long history, appearing in historical records as far back as the third-century. 260 Jeju black pigs were granted special national heritage protection status earlier this year, a symbolic statement of their immense importance to Jeju’s culinary culture. They join the island’s black cows and famous horses on the list of state designated treasures, an honour which should help protect and preserve the species in the future.The black pig’s past, however, was far from glamorous. In local dialect the animal is referred to as “poop pig” (똥도새기 – ddongdosaegi ). Don’t worry, this odoriferous appellation is not a commentary on the taste. Until the 1960’s the pigs were commonly kept in pens below latrines to dispose of human waste. Although the name has stuck, the practise has long since been abandoned. Koreans now live in age of hi-tech super-toilets replete with heated seats, automated lids and robotic douches (don’t confuse the latter with the flush button, or you’ll be in for a surprise, trust me). Thankfully, these days the pigs are valued exclusively for their excellent eating rather than their remarkable waste disposal capabilities, so there is no reason to be put off.
Black pork posses a unique taste, distinct from other breeds of Korean pig. It is particularly valued for its delicious, clean flavour. The meat has a less gamey scent, which some attribute to the famously high mineral content of Jeju’s groundwater. As part of the curing process, it is also often lightly smoked over burning hay, lending a subtle smokiness to the flavour. Then there is the texture. Black pork has an unusually high proportion of red muscle fibres and you will notice the meat is coloured a far deeper red than typical pork, almost like beef. As a result, the cooked flesh is tender, but more elastic and chewy, especially when aged properly. It offers a more satisfying bite – something you can really get your teeth stuck into. In short, it is a meat lover’s dream.
Due to the relative rarity of Jeju black pig, you can expect to pay a little more (on average, for every six normal piggies only one black piggy goes to market on the island). However, it is worth every won. Your first taste is sure to dispel any doubts that this is a high quality meat. The stripes of fat melt on contact with the griddle and the thick slices of belly crisp on the outside while remaining juicy, succulent and firm inside. To check you are getting the real deal, take a look at the outer layer of skin. Typically removed from normal pork, many restaurants leave it attached to the more expensive black variety, along with a little stubbly black hair and pink stamps of origin for authentication.
Black pig is readily available in restaurants across the length and breadth of the island. However, in my experience, hands-down the best place to sample Jeju’s favourite culinary speciality is Seomun market (서문 시장 – seomun sijang), the traditional west gate market in Jeju’s old city. Locals and visitors alike will probably be more familiar with Seomun’s bigger, brasher and shinier brother, Dongmun market (동문 시장 – dongmun sijang). Both share long and interesting histories. Half a century ago they were of a similar stature. Over the years, however, Seomun market gradually shrunk and shrivelled, as the centre of the city’s government and commerce moved to City Hall and the university relocated from the market’s gates further up the slopes of Mt. Halla. In the meantime, its easterly counterpart mushroomed in size and status. I am a big fan of Dongmun market. It is a great place to shop for souvenirs and groceries, or to simply soak up the authentic atmosphere of a traditional korean market. All the sounds, smells, colors, hustle, bustle and eccentric characters can be found there in abundance. It is also bursting to the brim with freshly caught exotic sea beasts, and is a superb location to sample raw fish (회 – hoe). On the other hand, if it is an authentic black pork barbecue experience you are craving, Seomun is the market to head to.
What makes Seomun so special is the system of collaboration that has evolved between the butchers and restaurants, unique in all Jeju. First you purchase your meat at a butcher’s stall on the market lane and then take it inside to cook and eat at one of the market’s many restaurants. You pay a cover charge for the table, which includes of all your side dishes, and then order accompaniments to complete your meal – maybe a rich soybean stew (된장찌개 – doenjang jjigae), fiery kimchi stew (김치 찌개 – kimchi jjigae) or tangy cold noodles (냉면 – naengmyeon). These classic Korean dishes all provide a harmonious flavour combination with pork. The cold noodles in particular offer a refreshing contrast to the smoking-hot barbecue in the sweaty summer months and contribute a zingy sharpness which cuts through the rich, fatty meat.
Four factors enable the Seomun market dining experience to stand head and shoulders above your typical barbecue pork joint on Jeju: freshness, service, choice and experience.
These days we live in an age of mass-porduced, machine-processed and factor-packaged pseudo foods. Consumers are increasingly concerned with the origin of what they eat, and right so. In Seomun market, you need not worry. Your meal is cut straight from the bone from huge slabs of shiny meat, right in front of your eyes. You can see the quality of the produce and witness it being handled with love and care. Besides, what better place to eat than a market, where all the ingredients are so fresh they arrived literally straight from the farm? Then there is the service. The ladies in the market have all worked there for decades, honing their craft over time. It is the perfect place to seek advice and inquire about the different cuts of meat, their specific origins and relative qualities. You are always sure to be greeted with big smiles and expert knowledge.
The market also offers massive variety when it comes to the types of meat and cuts available. Typical Korean cuts you will find there include:
- ribs (갈비살 – deunggalbi)
- belly (삼겹살/흑오겹 – samgyeopsal/ogyeopsal)
- neck fillet (목등심 – mokdeongshim)
- tenderloin (안심 – ansim)
- rib-eye (꽃등심 – ggotdeungshim)
- sirloin (등심 – deungshim)
- chuck steak (살치살 – salchisal)
- flank steak (치마살양지 – chimasal yangji )
- thinly sliced brisket (차돌박이 – chadol bagi )
Besides the black pork, the market’s Jeju beef is also superlative – beautifully marbled, lean, glistening and soft. My personal recommendation, rib-eye (꽃등심 – ggotdeungshim) is cheaper than some of the alternatives, deliciously flavourful and has a satisfying chewy texture. Raw beef (육회 – yook hoe) served with Asian pear is available on weedays and is a particuar treat in the summer. Inside the market, the choice of restaurants is as extensive as the choice of meat. Most offer similar menus, but with slightly different side dishes all made to personal recipes. Each time you return you can dine at a different establishment until you discover your favorite.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Seomun is big on experience and spectacle. There is a certain thrill in having your food cut to order and nothing can compare to the sheer excitement of carrying a towering Mt. Halla of meat to your chosen restaurant. The ambiance of the market is also far less touristy and more authentic Jeju than either Dongmun market or many other popular barbecue locations in the city (the neon-lit Heuk-dwaeji Street in town is strictly for tourists). People have been living, raising families, working and eating in this small lane for decades. Immersing yourself in the atmosphere adds to the fun of the occasion.
CHEF SIMON’S FINAL TIP
If you don’t speak great Korean, no problem, just point and choose. I would recommend being adventurous and trying a bit of everything. If you want to play it safe, ask for samgyeopsal or ogyeopsal (삼겹살/흑오겹 – three or five laeyered pork belly) which is the classic way to eat BBQ pork. If you do speak Korean, even better! You will be able to chat to the prorpriotors and discover something of the fascinating history of the market and Jeju. The ajummas will be happy to regale you with yarns from a bygone age. Many of the establishments have been in business for forty years, and the oldest member of the market has been working there for half a century. Whatever you do, be sure to pig out…you can start your diet the following morning.
- SEOMUN SIJANG (Westgate Market) / 서문 시장
- PRICE: black pork samgyeopsal 5000 won for 200g / Jeju beef 10,000-13,000 won for 200g / table cover charge 10,000 won per table (up to four diners, 3000 won overcharge for five or more diners)
- OPENING HOURS: restaurants open daily from 10:00-22:30
- PHONE: 064-758-8387
- ADDRESS: 13-2 Seomun-ro 4-gil, Jeju-si / 제주시, 서문로 4길 13-2