A strange neighborhood with some really spicy fishThere are some neighborhoods I always go to, but never get used to. Nakwon-dong is one. I have been there at least 20 times since I moved back to Seoul after living abroad. But four years later, I still feel like a complete stranger every time, as if it were my first visit. It’s strange, considering that the neighborhood has seen hardly any major changes in recent years.
It is precisely because of its strangeness that I love going to Nakwon-dong around this time of year. Every small thing about this neighborhood puts me in a state of hopeless sentimentality: the narrow alleys leading up to the stairway to Hollywood Theater; the cement walls of an underground arcade selling acoustic guitars; the dim neon lights coming from the cabaret beneath the theater; the blank stares of old men in Tapgol Park.
The stories I used to read about Nakwon-dong, which has a colorful and somewhat sketchy reputation, had an undertone that seemed more evocative than frightening, though the stories often blurred together in my mind with urban legends about gay bathhouses and crazy old men hiding behind trees. I still remember reading the obituary of a poet who was found dead in a movie theater in the neighborhood.
I read the story with much fascination, feeling captured by the mystery of his fate. For some reason, I thought his death was strangely romantic. For years, the image of a dead poet with his head pulled back on his seat haunted me with an ambivalent combination of fear and pleasure. When I got older, this fascination developed into an interest in his poems, which were bottomless in their pessimism about the world.
An editor at my first job had his own instincts about Nakwon-dong. Whenever it rained, he insisted that we all go there for steamed monkfish, for which the neighborhood was famous. His real point, of course, was that we should get drunk. But we had good laughs, searing our tongues with spicy monkfish and cooling them with bean sprout soup. One winter day in a monkfish restaurant, I sat next to one of my favorite Korean filmmakers. He autographed the back of my Pat Metheny CD.
It’s unclear exactly when Nakwon-dong became a monkfish ghetto. Indeed, the real origin of spicy monkfish is Masan, a port city in South Gyeongsang province. But though it’s far from the ocean, in its own way Nakwon-dong does have the feel of a seaside village, somehow secluded from the rest of Seoul, like an island. For me, there’s something about the neighborhood’s grungy back alleys and old restaurants with sliding doors that stirs up feelings of nostalgia and melancholy.
How to Cook
Ingredients (for 4 servings): 1 monkfish (cleaned), 50g of sea squirts, 40g of mugwort, 100g of bean sprouts, 1 green onion, 1 cup of water. Sauce: 4 teaspoons of red pepper paste, 3 teaspoons of cooked sweet rice, 1 teaspoon each of diced green onion and crushed garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed ginger, small amounts of salt, pepper, sesame seeds and sesame oil.
1. Mix the sauce ingredients in a bowl, and marinate the fish in the sauce for a couple of hours.
2. Wash the sea squirts in salt water. Pop the flesh to get rid of the water inside.
3. Cut off the “heads” and “tails” of the bean sprouts.
4. Bring water to boil in a pot. Pick the leaves off the mugwort, cut it into 5-centimeter pieces and boil it for one or two minutes.
5. Cut the green onion into bite-size pieces.
6. Heat oil in a pan and stir-fry the bean sprouts. Add the monkfish, sea squirts, water, green onion, mugwort, sweet rice and sesame oil. Saute for half an hour, stirring occasionally.
7. Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.
From miz.naver.com, Delicook
by Park Soo-mee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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