The real tastes of the south

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The real tastes of the south

If you cannot tell one Korean restaurant from another these days, that’s probably because most of them use factory-made sauces and green-house produce. It’s also because chefs tend to use simplified recipes and popular ingredients to please the masses.
Songjukheon, a traditional Korean restaurant near Changdeok Palace in northern Seoul, does things differently. The matronly chef, Kim Seung-ja, whom female staff members call “gomo” (“Auntie”), has been preparing food in the same Seoul location for the past 16 years, not to mention the 14 years prior to that in her hometown of Gwangju.
Her cooking bears the stamp of the south. Southern cooking is widely known to be pungent and spicy from aged sauces, and it’s sometimes dismissed as too crude. But Songjukheon serves it very elegantly, in taste and in presentation.
At this restaurant, located in a two-story, Western-style brick house from the 1970s, guests are welcomed and treated as though they were guests in a home. Seating is in private, modest ondol rooms decorated with old Korean paintings and artifacts.
Extremely polite waitresses told my tablemates and me that Songjukheon has had the same staff for more than a decade. They keep their own homemade sauces and pickles in refrigerators and earthenware jars in the basement. “Most Korean restaurants these days serve watered-down Korean dishes or fusion,” a waitress said. “We serve simple dishes that are made with our own sauces.”
Songjukheon requires reservations and serves only course meals; lunch is about 45,000 won ($37), and dinner is 65,000 won and up. Main dishes and specialties change with the seasons.
Tableware includes just about everything Korean: silver spoons and chopsticks, well-polished brass bowls, wooden plates, green celadon, white porcelain. Hand-crocheted placemats and hand-embroidered napkins depicting a Korean Romeo and Juliet add a sweet, homey touch. Such whimsical table settings, and the old-fashioned electric fan, evoke Korea in the 1980s.
Our lunch started with a bowl of kkaejuk (black sesame porridge), ssuk (wild chrysanthemum leaves) and date crepes filled with sugar and sesame seeds. The porridge was a bit coarse, with hulls; the crepes were tender and delicately sweet.
Mulkimchi (water kimchi), served on the side, had the authentic, old-fashioned zing of well-fermented Chinese cabbage. A plate of assorted jeon (fried patties), an essential in a Korean course meal, offered patties made with banghwaip (green leaves), with zucchini, with cod and with chopped clams. These were classically delicious, with mild flavors. We were told that the aromatic banghwaip came from the garden in the back.
This was quickly followed by a plate of abalone, shrimp and scallops, served on iridescent abalone shells. The abalone and scallops were sliced paper-thin; the shrimp was halved, pan-fried and seasoned perfectly, with nothing but butter and salt.
The banchan (side dishes) were classic, labor-intensive namul varieties, including aged cucumber; eggplant; strips of beef in soy sauce; young cabbage; chwi (a Korean herb) mixed with fermented bean paste and red pepper; bean sprouts, and green peppers. Every vegetable was plump and succulent with its own juice; the cucumbers used in the pickle were of the native Korean variety, which yield a harmonious, bittersweet taste.
Specialties of the day were bindaetteok (patties) made with duck; galnaktang (rib meat and octopus stew); pork belly with aged kimchi and pickled shrimp, and hong-eojjim (steamed, fermented skate).
These tender meat patties, which were pink inside, sizzled on top of the stone grill; they’d been nicely marinated in ginger and onion. The stew, which had an unusual mixture of beef, octopus bits and radish slices, was bland. The pork belly was very traditional indeed; it had tiny, edible bones (the most delicious part of the pork belly), and the accompanying kimchi and sauce were very pungent and salty, to complement the greasy meat.
Then to the fermented fish. Even the most audacious, adventurous diner experiences something like repulsion upon tasting a seriously fermented skate from the south of Korea. This one was medium-strength; its chemical odor was biting from the start, but gradually lessened, leaving behind a sort of shockwave on the tongue.
After the main course came siksa, a set of steamed rice, soup, stew and jeotgal (fermented fish), to finish the meal. What distinguished it was that there were nine kinds of jeotgal, including abalone and hairtail viscera, gulbi (dried corvina), radish, pollack roe, oyster and freshwater shrimp, served in brass bowls and in a beautifully partitioned porcelain case. They looked like brown dots in each bowl.
“These are at least 10 years old,” a staffer said. “Because it’s so salty, we serve very, very small portions.”
Each was, indeed, extremely salty and pungent, but had its own distinctive flavor. They went with a bowl of steamed rice and nureunbap (scorched rice) the way mature roquefort cheese goes with good bread.
The radish, for instance, was made from ripe, sweet radish picked in the fall (hence the extremely crunchy texture and salty taste),then buried in fermented soybean paste for years (hence the pungent, bitter flavor of the sauce). A boiling pot of doenjang-jigae (bean paste stew) had deep, almost ancient spices and flavors.
At the very end of the meal, a small glass of brown, homemade plum nectar turned up with a slice of fresh watermelon, a combination I doubt could be found anywhere else in the year 2004. This meal was like being cooked for by an aunt you visit once a year or so. It was like a good memory, or a taste of a country home.


SONGJUKHEON
English: A little spoken.
English menu: Not available.
Telephone: (02) 763-4234, (02) 764-5919.
Reservations: Required.
Hours: Noon-2 p.m., 6-10 p.m. daily.
Location: 37-1 Unni-dong, Jongno district; near the main entrance of Changdeok Palace in northern Seoul.
Parking: Valet.
Dress code: Smart casual or elegant.


by Ines Cho

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