Octopus for masochists: nakji bokkeumAt the mention of “Mugyo-dong nakj bokkeum” or stir-fried octopus from Mugyo-dong, most Koreans respond like Pavlov’s dog. The dish, which originated in the Mugyo-dong neighborhood of central Seoul, is red and spicy beyond belief. The physical shock left by the experience is truly memorable,whether or not one returns for a second searing bite in one’s lifetime. However, one thing is certain. Those who grow conditioned ― if not addicted ― toflirting with that fine line between pain and pleasure will salivate like crazy upon hearing the words “Mugyo-dong nakji bokkeum.”
Proof of the dish’s success is that Mugyo-dong nakji bokkeum has become a trademark Korean delicacy. It has been popular for over three decades since it was introduced by the Wonjo Halmeoni (Original Grandma) restaurant in Mugyo-dong in 1965. Today, restaurants specializing in Mugyo-dong style octopus are found across the country.
The dish was born in a once up-and-coming neighborhood. Long before Apgujeong-dong, Myeongdong and Jongno became hot spots for young people, Mugyo-dong was the place to be. In the early 1960s, the country’s new elite, dressed in Western suits and dresses, went out to the hip Mugyo-dong in the evenings for American coffee and cinema.
Street vendors offered all sorts of popular Korean foods, but three dishes ― bindaetteok (mung bean patties), haejangguk (hangover soup) and nakji bokkeum (stir-fried octopus) ― became signature dishes in the neighborhood.
However, by the late 1970s the area was overrun by urban redevelopment and had lost most of its specialty eateries.
Three decades later, octopus restaurants have spread to neighboring streets, and the famous one moved a few blocks north to Seorin-dong and Cheongjin-dong, although the bustling alley lined with octopus restaurants retains the Mugyo-dong name.
Restaurants with established reputations ― Lee Gang-sun Silbijip, Seorin Nakji, Ujeong Nakji and Wonjo Halmeoni Nakji Center ―are proud of their successes; Each claims to be the “wonjo,” or the originator, of the famous octopus dish.
However, over several days of tummy-burning research we at the IHT-JoongAng Daily were able to track down the 87-year-old woman who is most likely the actual creator of the dish.
Sitting by a cash register that rings around the clock, Park Mu-sun appeared healthy and happy overseeing the Wonjo Halmeoni Nakji Center (Original Grandma Octopus Center) on a side street near the U.S. Embassy in central Seoul.
When asked the secret to her longevity, she beamed and credited her lifetime devotion to octopus.
The restaurant is currently run by her second son, Lee Jung-taek, 58. Assisting him on the floor was his eldest son, Seon-ho, 32, who is preparing to carry on the family business for a third generation.
The senior Lee showed us a 1977 clipping from “Monthly JoongAng,” a news magazine affiliated with this newspaper. The story described Mr. Lee, then 30 years old, as the entrepreneur behind the success of the famous nakji restaurant, which opened in 1965.
More than 40 years ago, Ms. Park began working in the kitchen of an old acquaintance’s roasted sparrow restaurant. Coming from the port city of Incheon, where octopus was common and cheap, she started serving pan-fried octopus as a side dish. It quickly drew in many customers, leading her to launch a restaurant serving her specialty in 1965.
Other restaurants followed suit, establishing Mugyo-dong as the place to go for the delicious octopus dish. In its heyday, there were about seven restaurants in the Jongno district, but urban redevelopment brought an increase of high-rise buildings that cut through the area, forcing restaurants to change locations.
As for Ms. Park, she left the octopus business in search of a new life in Paraguay for seven years in the 1980s. But before she left Korea, she passed along her recipes to a woman named Lee Gang-sun, who in the old days ran a beer hall in the neighborhood. Ms. Lee, now 67, runs a chain restaurant called Lee Gang-sun Silbijip (Lee Gang-sun Cheap Eats).
In early 2000, Ms. Park and her family opened the current Wonjo Halmeoni Nakji Center.
According to the district offices of Jongno-gu and Junggu, there are a total of 16 restaurants specializing in octopus in Seorin-dong, Cheongjin-dong and Mugyo-dong nowadays.
Unfortunately, part of the area is again being bulldozed to make way for another high-rise. But they are used to it by now.
Over the past 40 years, restaurants like Seorin Nakji have had to relocate three times.
In 1991, Seorin Nakji temporarily closed during a relocation from the current SK building site. At that time, another restaurant stole Seorin’s name to leverage its popularity. After a noisy lawsuit, Seorin got its name back.
Stimulated by the return of the “Original Grandma,” other owners have renovated their restaurants and replaced worn-out signs with bright new ones, attracting media coverage for their claims to originality.
The area is again revitalized, with additional octopus recipes developed to cater to the tastes of nearby office workers in the Gwanghwamun area.
A fiery legacy: Grandmother, father and son
The octopus dish sold in Mugyo-dong is described as stir-fried or pan-broiled. But its taste owes more to three prominent seasonings ― red chili peppers, garlic and MSG (monosodium glutamate) ― than the seafood. The fiery sauce is shocking even to those accustomed to spicy Korean fare. To mitigate stomach discomfort, mild side dishes accompany the meal.
Wonjo Halmeoni Nakji Center is a clean, well-lit place with 50 tables on two floors, but it retains the aura of Korea’s poor past. The octopus is served on plastic plates, and clam soup comes in a battered aluminum pot. Waitresses there are loud but friendly ajumma, and most customers order cheap Korean soju or beer.
At Nakji Center, a small plate of bright red stir-fried octopus is 14,000 won ($11), but is enough for three to four people. Customers mix this with their choosing of steamed rice, bean sprouts, dried seaweed and sesame oil. To neutralize the spice, almost everyone orders jogaetang, or clam soup, for 9,000 won.
A plate of yeonpo nakji (mild octopus) for 14,000 won is basically the same stir-fried octopus with minimum spices, so anyone who cannot handle a bit of heat can still enjoy steamed rice topped with octopus.
The octopus served at Nakji Center is quite large, soft and plump. The spice is overpowering and the flesh very salty, but mixed with plain rice and clear soup it becomes more palatable. Out of three speciality restaurants, we liked Nakji Center the best, as the octopus was very fresh and the level of spice could be adjusted.
Park Mu-sun, the “halmeoni” or grandma behind this recipe, said her family used to be wholesale buyers of fresh octopus caught in the southern part of South Korea. However, land reclamation projects in Korea’s coastal tidelands have led to a shortage of octopus. Nakji Center consumes about 600 octopi per day ― or about 160 kilograms. It is crucial to regulate the quality of the octopus, most of which comes directly from a family-owned plant in China overseen by Ms. Park’s elder son. A small portion come from Samcheon Bay in South Gyeongsang province. To maintain a fresh, chewy flavor, Ms. Park said that the octopus is frozen alive immediately after being caught. Before broiling she lightly boils the octopus in soy sauce and sugar, which retains the juice and maintains the soft texture.
Wonjo Halmeoni Nakji Center
Tel: (02) 734-1226.
Hours: 9 a.m.-midnight daily.
Location: Near Jongno District Office; Gwanghwamun subway station, line No.5, exit 4. Walk towards Jonggak and turn left at the second block.
Parking: Available nearby, free for up to 30 minutes.
Octopi meet pigs in stir-fry delight
Along with Wonjo Halmeoni Nakji Center, Wonjo Seorin Nakji is one of the oldest Nakji restaurants in the area. It opened in 1959 as Seorin Silbijip right behind the Korean Export Insurance Corporation building. Founder Park Jong-hun, now 69, changed the restaurant’s name to Wonjo Seorin Nakji 25 years ago. Mr. Park used to sell everything from steak, sausage and bacon to kimchi stew and bean-paste stew. Over time he dropped unpopular dishes and focused on octopus and grilled bacon and sausage. Mr. Park has run Seorin for 45 years, and turned over the lucrative business last year to his son, Park Beom-jun, who is 33.
The restaurant is known as a place to mix dishes together. Years ago, customers, who jammed the 100-seat restaurant every day, began to mix stir-fried octopus with bacon and sausage, and calling it “bulpan,” or grilled food. To this day, they are sold separately, but most customers heap them together for eating.
The sausage and bacon grill (20,000 won) consists of plain sausage, bacon, kimchi, potato, bean sprouts and a lot of red pepper. On top of this, you dump a small plate of nakji-bokkeum (13,000 won) and cook them again. It’s so hyper-spicy that your mouth, stomach and entire body will be on fire. But assorted side dishes, plain rice and clam soup (8,000 won) quench the blaze, allowing the festive meal to continue.
The food became so unbearably spicy that we ordered nakji pajeon, or octopus pancakes (7,000 won), which are speckled with tasty octopus bits, green onions and a lot of eggs. It was tasty, but all of us ― and everyone around us ― were panting for water, sweet wine, air.
When asked about the secret of the success of Seorin Nakji, the younger Park said it was fresh ingredients. Unlike other big chains which use imported Chinese octopus, he buys octopus from Yeosu, North Jeolla province. The restaurant has been doing business with the same dealer for over 30 years.
These octopus are smaller with a denser texture ― a trait of Korean octopus. Mr. Park said that Korean octopus is usually thicker and tastier than Chinese octopus and that Seorin is one of two or three restaurants that use Korean octopus in the area.
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 735-0670.
Hours: 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. daily.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
Location: Gwanghwamun subway station, line No.5, exit 4, the last restaurant in the Pimatgol alley near the street-level entrance to Kyobo Book Center.
Dumplings are prize of the franchise
We also checked out the first restaurant in the Lee Gang-sun Silbijip chain next to Kyobo Book Store, where Ms. Lee, 67, oversees things. Like other octopus restaurants, this place is made to look rundown and messy; it is where middle-aged Korean men get rowdy over soju and spicy octopus in a haze of thick smoke.
Like at the Nakji Center, this nakji bokkeum (14,000 won) was pungent and extremely spicy and red, but the octopus itself tasted bland compared to the ones served at Nakji Center and Seorin Nakji, even if the clam soup (9,000 won) on the side worked as an effective neutralizer. A nice addition to the typical menu was the nakji mandu (octopus dumplings) served in a bamboo steamer. These were yummy and cheap at 6,000 won for 10 pieces.
With 18 franchise restaurants in and around Seoul, Lee Gang-sun Silbijip can satiate your cravings even outside of Mugyo-dong.
Lee Gang-sun Silbijip
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 732-7889.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily.
Location: Next to Burger King behind Kyobo Book Store; Gwanghwamun subway station, line No. 5, exit 4.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
by Ines Cho
Reporting by Kim Kyoung-mo, Kim Su-jin and Kong Jin-wan