A well-cooked bird worthy of a beggarWho’d be a beggar?
Well, as a journalist, I’m never more than a step or two from financial ruin, but I would boldly suggest that well-off, adventurous gourmets might benefit from a day or two among the ragged. Not for the good of their souls, I hasten to add, but for the recipes to be found among the vagrant hordes.
In this part of the world, the Chinese dish “beggar’s chicken” ― a stuffed bird, cooked in a mound of hot mud or clay ― is a famed delicacy, even among those whose only relationship with vagrancy is to scurry timidly past the soju victims at Seoul Station. Is there a Korean equivalent to this Chinese culinary oddity?
However, unlike its Chinese relative, the Korean fowl in question is a quacker, not a clucker. But the cooking method is, I believe, virtually identical.
Despite repeated interrogations of numerous restaurateurs, chefs and serving maids, I remain ignorant of where in Korea this dish originated, although every restaurateur who has served it to me insists (thumping table) that it is indeed Korean, by jingo, not Chinese.
Since one potential terminus to such conversations is a Goguryeo-related bloodbath, I do not pursue this line of inquiry for long. After all, we are here to eat.
“Here” is Hannam-dong’s Eunhaeng Namujip (“Ginkgo Treehouse”).
This place is basically a converted house in a restaurant-lined Hannam-dong side street. The establishment’s first-floor dining area is plain and generally unremarkable.
My only recollection of the place is that the decor was cream and brown, and that there were no chairs ― so it is unmemorable as well as unremarkable.
Not so the menu, which offers a range of duck dishes (steamed, stewed, smoked, etc.) ― largely in the range of 30,000 won ($29) to 35,000 won. The flagship is the mud-cooked duck, hwangto jinheuk gui, which sells for 40,000 won and serves two very comfortably.
(Oh, before we continue, there is one key point all potential diners need to note: Due to the cooking method, it is essential to order three hours in advance.)
When Donald arrives, proudly borne in under a shining tureen, he is quite a sight: A substantial waddler, served, de-muddied, in all his steaming glory, on a black skillet. I raise a knife. Sorry, my fine feathered friend, but your quacking days are over.
As we slice open the crisp brown skin of the breast, a veritable treasure chest is revealed inside: a glistening mass of sticky rice stuffed with jujubes, chestnuts and (I think) pumpkin seeds.
The meat is pink and there is plenty of it; duck is chicken for grown-ups, delivering bags more flavor and a great deal more oil.
The stuffing is ― as you might expect ― extremely well-textured, and offers a sweetish compliment to the meat.
Side-dish synergy is not always a strong point in Korean cuisine, but here, the side dishes appear to have been thoughtfully chosen especially to match the duck.
These include iced, unspiced kimchi, drawn from the wintry pots outside, as well as some sour pickled turnip slices and vinegar- pickled onions.
All offer sharp tastes to refresh the palate after the oily flesh of the fowl.
In addition, there is a plate of sticky caramelized nuts, and yes, there is one fiery red, well-spiced kimchi for those customers who feel they have not truly dined unless their eyes have watered and their nose has run.
A drink? But of course; a lunch without it is like a date without a smooch (i.e. not the pleasure one had anticipated).
We are recommended San Mi (7,000 won), a brand of bokbunju, a kind of gin made from red berries. Not only is it the color of a red wine, it tastes, on first acquaintance, closer to a strong red than any other Korean traditional drink I have sampled.
However, the aftertaste offers a very different kind of fruitiness from the juice of the grape. Not as syrupy as many of its competitors, San Mi is a very appropriate to accompany the bird.
The serving ajumma is a friendly and cheery old hen, although, when questioned, she turns out to be a little hazy on the details of the cooking methods.
Verdict: Fine fowl for the cognoscenti, at prices that are not inappropriate.
There is one drawback to this restaurant, of course. To quote the words of that immortal hotelier Basil Fawlty: “If you don’t like duck ― you’re out of luck!”
English: None spoken, none on menu.
Tel: (02) 792-3851~2.
Location: Side street next to Kookmin Bank, near Soonchunhyang Hospital in Hannam-dong.
Subway: None nearby.
Hours: 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily. Order in advance.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon