Wrap and roll: the history of Korean sausageIt’s sold everywhere in Korea, with the color of an eggplant and coiled to look like a fakir’s snake. It’s sold in streets, under tents and in convenience stores. Restaurants serve it steaming hot, cut in the shape of fat buttons or floating inside an oily soup.
Like France’s boudin noir or Scotland’s haggis, Korean blood sausage, or sundae as it is popularly known, has been a favorite food here for centuries. The first mention in Korea of stuffing scrap meat and blood into intestines was in the “Gyugonsiuibang” (“The Book of Korean Cuisine and Cooking”), the first cookbook to be written in hangul in 1653. The book instructs readers on how to make steamed sundae by adding spices to minced dog meat and stuffing it into the animal’s intestines. Another book, written and published in 1809 for Joseon Dynasty women, “Gyuhapchongseo,” mentioned that minced beef, chicken and pheasant could be spiced and stuffed into cow intestines.
The current form of Korean blood sausage, made from pig intestine and blood, didn’t appear until the late 19th century, when the cookbook “Siuijeonseo” (“The Book of Korean Women’s Life”) first used the term “sundae” and diversified the recipe’s ingredients. The book also gives a recipe for fish sundae, made with vegetables and meat stuffed into fish bladders and boiled, and one for pig sundae, made with watercress, bean sprouts, radish, tofu and cabbage kimchi. Korean sundae is simply steamed and then dipped into fermented shrimp sauce, or in spiced salt.
Ingredients and cooking methods differ largely by region: One of the gourmet varieties is called abai sundae, which originated in the North Korean province of Hamgyeong. What makes abai different from ordinary sundae is that it is made with sticky rice and large intestines, resulting in a much larger roll of sundae. Both Byeongcheon sundae, originating in Chungcheong province, and Baegam sundae, in Gyeongsang province, are also made from vegetables, meat and glass noodles, but Byeongcheon sundae has a greasier taste than the Baegam variety. Another type of sundae is ojingeo, or squid, which is a specialty of Gangwon province. This variety is made not out of animal intestines but from the round trunk of a squid, and stuffed with squid tentacles, sticky rice and glass noodles.
Although sundae is sold almost everywhere, there’s one area in Seoul where the recipe has become something of its local specialty. At the foot of Gwanak Mountain, near a bustling university neighborhood, is a local market that for over three decades has earned a reputation for its delicious “sundae-bokkeum,” or pan-fried sundae. Featuring sizzling sundae slices along with noodles, fresh cabbage, garlic and aromatic sesame leaves, all whipped up on a large frying pan, the dish has been a festive treat for young and poor students looking for an inexpensive but filling meal to go with their soju.
When a subway station opened nearby in 1984, the area boomed, and the commercialization drove the traditional market out of business. The recipe, however, never lost its popularity. In 1992, former eatery owners united to establish the four-story “Minsok Sundae Town” building, which hosts about 100 sundae booths. The popularity of sundae dishes in the the forest of neon signs has since led to the opening of another building, “Yangji Minsok Sundae Town,” five years ago.
A recipe’s success is blood and iron
On the first floor of the original Minsok Sundae Town is Ttosuni Sundae, specializing in the original sundae-bokkeum. Furnished with bubblegum-pink tables and chairs, the vast hall of about 350 seats is jam-packed even on weekday evenings. The entire wall on one corner is plastered with photographs of TV coverage, featuring the 50-year-old creator of the dish, Jung In-ja, decked out in fuscia pink dress.
“Pink is her favorite color,” one of the matronly waitresses said, pointing at glittering pink sandals placed near the cash register.
Ms. Jung, a native of Chungcheong province, married into a merchant family in Sillim-dong 29 years ago. The young couple started selling sundae in the market, but competition for customers was fierce. To set herself apart from the crowd, she started pan-frying sliced sundae with vegetables, sold mostly to students from nearby schools. Other vendors jumped the bandwagon, copying her recipe, and the sundae bokkeum craze kicked off.
When Sillim Market closed down 15 years ago under the city’s redevelopment plan, Ms. Jung’s eatery moved into the Minsok Sundae Town building with other similar eateries. Today, Ttosuni Sundae is a big family business involving Ms. Jung’s husband, brother and sons, who overlook the daily and franchise operations. The chain has more than 81 branches with an additional seven soon to open.
Of the 200 sundae restaurants in the area, Ttosuni is the only one that is “entitled” to use the Korean term wonjo, meaning originator. At least, that’s what Ms. Jang’s younger brother, In-su, 34, claimed. The privilege is “because our neighbors respect my sister, who originated the dish.”
At Ttosuni, all the pink tables are equipped with gas burners, over which steamed or pan-fried sundae is cooked. We ordered a pot of modeum-sundae (12,000 won or $10, pictured top right), or three kinds of sundae: vegetables, abai and squid. When heated, the vegetable sundae’s thin outer shell shrank to reveal finely diced carrots, onions and green onions, mixed together in congealed purple blood.
The abai sundae was packed fat with rice, blood and seasonings, which were tightly wrapped in fatty, flesh-colored intestines. I’m not a great fan of North Korean sundae, but the subtle aroma of the ginseng made me appreciate the taste of a real traditional sausage.
The squid sundae came with rice and chunks of squid legs. Compared with the cheap glass-noodle sausages sold in streets and in convenience stores, the sausages were definite winners, having tender skins and distinctive flavors without a meat smell, the mark of an inferior sundae. The waitress said the sundae was made in Ttosuni’s sausage factory in Anseong in Gyeonggi province.
The main dish, of course, was the famous sundae-bokkeum (5,000 won per person), which filled the vast hall with a hazy smoke and sizzling popping noise. We chose baeksundae, literally “white” sundae, which is served without the red spicy seasoning. Despite its name, baeksundae is a feast of color splattered across the grill: purple sundae made with glass noodles and blood, verdant slices of cabbage and sesame leaves, orange strips of carrots, creamy rice cakes and even bits of gopjang, or cow’s viscera, in a pool of thick golden sesame oil, peppered with woody perolla seeds.
Even without the spicy dipping sauce, the dish was very salty, but scarfing down one ingredient at a time over a beer, it was easy to imagine how an Italian chef traveling through Korea might fall in love with the recipe, taking it back home to mix with a nicely-chilled bottle of spumante.
Minsok Sundae Town and its adjacent Yangji Minsok Sundae Town are packed with hundreds of small booths, crowding the floors of both buildings. Frustrated vendors shout and grab at passing customers.
We were searching for a couple of booths. One was Yeosujip on the third floor of Minsok Sundae Town and the other was Samchonjip, on the fourth floor of the newer Yangji Minsok Sundae Town. Because they were so similar, we decided to try Yeosujip, which is much older than Samchonjip. Even if the Yangji building is only five years old, the entire building has a scattered, unkempt and messy feel under its blue fluorescent lights. So for that matter does the older Minsok Sundae Town building, which has the environment of a giant shanty town preserved inside a concrete, neon-signed edifice.
After a bit of browsing around, we returned to Yeosujip only to be greeted by its owner, Kim Kwang-yeon, asking us, “Why didn’t you come to us in the first place, anyway?”
Yeosujip is owned by Ms. Kim and her husband, Park Young-ku, who began selling sundae when they moved into the building 15 years ago. Their restaurant is considerably smaller than Ttosuni, but has expanded over the years. In addition to Yeosujip, the couple owns another booth nearby, called “Damoa,” and both eateries feature open kitchens where customers can watch the sundae being prepared; all together they comprise about 100 seats. Compared with Ttosuni, Yeosujip feels more homey, and customers call Ms. Kim, “Imonim” (“Auntie”).
Like every other sausage booth here, Yeosujip sells sundae-bokkeum dishes, spicy or mild, at just 6,000 won per person; Ms. Kim says she has secret recipes for the tasty spicy dipping sauces that force her customers to return for more. The Yeosujip recipes feature the same tasty dark-colored sundae slices but differ by adding slices of squid, shiitake mushrooms and a lot more fresh green leaves and roasted perolla seeds. It also comes with a small pot of spicy chili pepper sauce. Ms. Kim’s version is less salty and a bit more flavorful. She hovers around her customers as if they were visiting relatives. “Isn’t my gopchang delicious? I buy the cow’s viscera myself and clean them at home and bring them over here!” she shouts, as her hand swiftly tosses out the grilled sundae.
The verdict was unanimous: we would have to come back for the wonderfully homey sundae by the sweet Auntie of Yeosujip.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.
Location: The third floor of the Minsok Sundae Town building.
Parking: Paid parking nearby, 3,000 won ($3) for 1 hour.
Small vendors fight for customers in Sundae Town buildings, above. Kim Kwang-yeon, who owns Yeosu Sundae, above and below, whips up pan-fried sundae dishes on the spot the way an aunt would for visiting relatives.
Tel: (02) 884-7565.
Hours: 24 Hours, all year around.
Location: The first floor of Minsok Sundae Town building.
Parking: Paid parking, 1,500 won for 1 hour.
by Ines Cho
Reporting by Kim Kyoung-mo, Kim Su-jin, Kong Jin-wan and Jin Hyun-ju