If you’re a connoisseur, you start with the tailGANGHWADO ISLAND,
Tell your Korean friends that you’ve feasted on eels, and you’ll instantly get an envious look ― especially from guy friends. At least, that was what happened to me.
Like dog meat, eel has long been thought of in Korea as a panacea for building up one’s stamina. But eel is served year-round, while dog is considered by many to be a summertime specialty (not to mention a taboo).
Of the myriad legends having to do with the wonders of eel, one says that you get the strongest effects from the tail. Restaurateur Park Ip-bun is well aware of this. At her Ilmi Sanjang restaurant on Ganghwado island near Incheon, Ms. Park serves the eels’ tails first. If you aren’t prepared for it, you might be a bit repulsed by the sight of the just-sliced-off tails still jumping around on fire. This is to ensure customers that they’re fresh, Ms. Park says with a sense of pride.
Ms. Park’s restaurant is one of a cluster of 10 or so places specializing in eel, which together have been dubbed Deorimi Eel Village. An express bus from Sinchon Suburban Bus Terminal takes you to the heart of the island in less than an hour. Once you get to the island, it’s about a 10-minute taxi ride to the Eel Village. Not far away is the Yeomhwa River, whereby eels supposedly make their way to the Yellow Sea.
Ilmi Sanjang, which means “a mountain villa serving superb flavor,” is in a mountain-free area. But there seems to be a consensus that the “superb flavor” part is true; the restaurant, which has been around for more than two decades, was crowded even on a Tuesday, with customers mostly from Seoul. One reason might be the generous portions. Unlike what you’ll find at some eel places, the slices here are big and thick, accompanied by many side dishes and complemented with eel and garlic porridge at the end of the meal. Ours was 20,000 won ($17) per person.
Science offers some support for the idea that eel is a body’s friend. It’s got plenty of vitamin A, said to be good for the eyesight, the skin and, of course, stamina. Eel is also supposed to benefit the brain. Little wonder it’s popular throughout Asia, particularly in Japan, where it’s usually served with teriyaki sauce.
Ms. Park serves up her eel without sauce first, so diners can savor the soft texture as-is. Then they can dip the slices of raw eel in Ms. Park’s special gochujang (hot pepper paste) sauce and grill it. Ms. Park will say little about the sauce, a product of 20 years of restaurant experience. Hot, sweet and a bit sour, the sauce helped me enjoy the eel, which I thought was too greasy. In fact, I don’t think I’ll be eating eel again this year.
An essential side dish is sliced, pickled ginger, which, again, helps with the oiliness. Incidentally, never follow up an eel meal with peach for dessert, according to Ms. Park; your digestive system will make you regret it. Later Internet research seemed to confirm this interesting fact. Don’t worry that you’ll forget about the peach problem, because Ms. Park will remind you after your meal.
There are stories about other, stamina-related benefits that Koreans tell each other, which unfortunately cannot be discussed in this family newspaper. I used to take such absurd stories with a grain of salt, but who knows? Find out for yourself.
English: None spoken.
Tel.: (032) 933-8585~86.
Location: Ganghwado island, near Incheon.
Hours: Opens daily at 11 a.m.; last orders at 8:30 p.m. Closed first Monday of each month.
Parking: Plenty available.
by Chun Su-jin