A pleasant repast, Northern styleNorth Koreans are known for a lot of things, but being trenchermanly is not one of them. (There is, of course, one dishonorable exception: The nation’s Dear Leader. But I digress.) This situation, however, is a result of the country’s politico-economic situation and not its cuisine; the North boasts a number of culinary specialties, including meat dumplings and cold buckwheat noodles.
A range of places serve Northern dishes in the South ― one of them being Samcheong-dong’s poetically named Nun Namu Jip (“Snow Tree House”), established by a lady whose family hailed from the North two generations back. With this pretty, once-traditional neighborhood being rapidly modernized and colonized by modern Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, it is good to know that this outlet ― which has stood for 10 years ― still carries the torch for simple, Korean grub. Let’s step inside.
Set in a basement, as you walk down, you pass ink paintings of the specialties posted on the wall on rice paper. Once inside, you walk past the kitchen and into the small dining area, with its six plain tables and shelf seating along one wall. To one side, a couple of 1970s-style stained glass doors are surmounted with traditional Korean wooden window frames. Tree branches are studded around the place, as are vases, stand lamps and wooden gourds. It has something of an arty, studenty ambience, and, while it is a bit higgledy-piggledy, does not lack charm.
Menu is pasted up on the brown rice paper walls. The specialties of the house include kimchi mali bap (wet kimchi rice) for 4,000 won ($3.50), bindaetteok (savory pancakes) and tteok galbi (rice cakes and minced meat; 7,000 won). The two of us ― self and senior national desk writer Ser Myo-ja ― order the lot.
First, of course, come side dishes. There is kkakdugi ― chunks of fermented radish in chili sauce ― lightly fried plain tofu tiles, and cubes of acorn jelly. And kimchi. This is North Korean style: white cabbage, in water. It is quite sweet and, although mildly tangy, not as spicy as most southern varieties (the North is cooler, and as the saying goes, the hotter the country, the spicier the food).
The tteok galbi is served sizzling on an iron platter coated in tin foil. It is a patty of minced beef in a galbi sauce, served with hot slices of cylindrical tteok, or rice cake. Good stuff: The galbi sauce adds moisture, the sesame seeds sprinkled on top give it a pleasingly nutty taste, and the rice cakes add a chewy texture. I read recently that Kim Jong-il was quite enamored of the lowly hamburger, something his sons had sampled in school in Switzerland ― could this meat dish have been a local inspiration?
The bindaetteok is made of nok-du, or mung bean. The greenish pancake is fried, but is dry so the edges are crisp, and it lacks the greasiness many versions suffer from. It is generously sprinkled with green onions, green bean sprouts, onions, kimchi and pork. Most curiously, it has an intriguingly faint ― but distinct ― whiff of horseradish, which, for the life of me, I cannot identify. Anyway, mystery is no bad thing, and neither is this dish ― certainly the most unique bindaetteok I have ever eaten. And if you like horseradish (which I do) you will love it.
The kimchi mali bap is the most typically North Korean dish. What we have here is a bowl of water kimchi, with the rice in it, and sesame seeds and chopped seaweed sprinkled on top, all set off with a hard-boiled egg. Now there is nothing wrong with this at all ― it is cool, tangy and refreshing ― but if, like me, you are not a great fan of cold noodles, you probably will not take to this.
To drink, there is dong dong ju (farmers’ rice beer) and chong ha (rice wine) but like all good journalists, we didn’t touch a drop. It was lunchtime and we had to return to the office to slave away for you, dear reader.
Post-meal, we did, however, venture across the road, walk back down the street in the direction of Gyeongbok Palace and into Seoul-seo Dullchaero Jal Hannun Jip (“The second best tea house in Seoul”). On offer here are deer antler tea (served with sugared scraps of dried ginger), sweet red bean porridge (with rice cakes and chestnuts) and other rare delights, all served by genuinely friendly ajumma. If this is the second best tea house in Seoul, the best must be truly excellent.
Verdict: Presentation is not an issue at Nun Namu Jip, and service is more efficient than friendly (if you know what I mean), but the food is good and simple. Also, each dish we ate was somewhat different from what is served in more conventional Korean restaurants, and value is solid. Perhaps not a gourmet’s first choice, but well worth a look in next time you are in this pretty neighborhood.
NUN NAMU JIP
Location: Near the north end of Samcheong-dong’s main road.
Subway: None convenient.
Tel.: (02) 739-6742.
Hours: 11:45 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Parking: None available.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon