Exotic treats of a forlorn neighborhoodAficionados of Chinese cuisine might find Koreanized Chinese food devoid of vibrant herbs and exotic meats. If you’re sick of just garlic and soy sauce, it’s worth visiting the restaurants in a commercial district in southwest Seoul which recently began serving unique Chinese dishes for the Korean-Chinese community.
The Chinese food sold in Daerim 2-dong and Garibong 1-dong, where most Korean-Chinese live and work, was first covered by the local media two years ago. Some curious Koreans visited this emerging Chinatown, but found the food was too foreign. When reporters from the IHT-JoongAng Daily went there looking for restaurant recommendations, everyone warned us ― “Those places are for the gyopo!” or foreign-born Koreans.
At first glance, Daerim 2-dong and Garibong 1-dong look similar to the neighboring parts of Yeongdeungpo-gu. However, the deeper one goes, the more Chinese characters one sees, creating the illusion of an exotic locale.
Right in front of the Daerim subway station stands Yeonbyeon Naengmyeon, a big restaurant owned by Kim Sung-hak. The 50-year-old Korean-Chinese was a high-ranking civil servant in Yanbian, China before moving to Korea in 1995 to work. Mr. Kim opened the noodle restaurant in 2001, and today is an influential figure in the Korean-Chinese community, which, he says, mostly consists of illegal immigrants who lack any sort of formal representation.
Mr. Kim said the mood in the community is grim these days. At its peak in 2004, the Daerim 2-dong and Garibong 1-dong neighborhoods were home to about 30,000 Korean-Chinese, estimates Mr. Kim. The Korean-Chinese community formed in this area around 2002 as Korean-Chinese sought out better economic opportunities. Many opened restaurants and other small businesses.
The number of Korean-Chinese continued to grow until changes in immigration laws forced many to leave the country. As of March 15, 2005, all Korean-Chinese residing here illegally were sent back to China with the opportunity to return later under a new working visa regime after a year. This caused about 80 percent of the Korean-Chinese living in the area to return to China.
Changes in immigration laws are not the only reason this Chinatown seems to be dying. The recent economic slowdown has been very difficult for Korean-Chinese, who work mainly in the service and construction industries. Many restaurant and shop owners have closed down.
Kim Dong-sung, the owner of Dongbei Huoguo in Garibong 1-dong, explained that his extensive experience doing business in Korea has helped him to ride out these hard times. When asked about life in Korea, he was very negative, saying that Korean-Chinese are victims of extensive discrimination or are generally ignored by their Korean neighbors.
Mr. Kim of Yeonbyeon Naengmyeon explained that general neglect by Koreans and local government officials is one reason it is difficult to collect and manage accurate data on Korean-Chinese residing in Seoul. Until Korean-Chinese are granted regular working visas most enter the country on a visitation visas, which merely permit them to see relatives for a limited amount of time.
Despite their somewhat marginalized status, however, Korean-Chinese are quick to point out that their standard of living in Korea is much higher than in China. “It’s much better than being back in Jilin because we can get an education and earn money,” said Mr. Kim of Dongbei restaurant.
The streets are lined with empty eateries, cluttered stores full of used work jackets and carts piled with candies that were popular decades ago. This is the dark underbelly of Seoul, seemingly trapped in time, which neither politicians nor civil servants want to deal with. When asked about the situation, clerks in both neighborhood offices were reluctant to cooperate with reporters. “The area has deteriorated so much that no one wanted to work here. The staff changed too often, so we cannot keep any records,” said an employee at the Garibong 1-Dong Office.
Mr. Kim of Yeonbyeon Naengmyeon wishes Korean-Chinese would be treated the same as other Koreans living here.
Where the bull penis is hot
Venturing down the streets of Daerim-dong and Garibong-dong, we came across a variety of Chinese delicacies. Restaurant owners serve popular dishes from their respective hometowns in China, including Beijing, Yanbian and Sichuan. But lamb skewers and shabu shabu are two specialties favored by Korean-Chinese.
Most residents in Daerim 2-dong spoke good Korean with a lilting Chinese accent; a number of them suggested we try yangkkochi or lamb skewers. One friendly baker directed us to Dongcheng Yangrouquan (Dongseong Yangyukcheon, (02) 835-9836), but we decided on Caoyuan Yangrouquan (Chowon Yangyukcheon), recommended by several random pedestrians and shop owners. It was dinner time, but most places were empty, indicating the economically depressed conditions.
We were the first customers of the evening at Caoyuan. The owner, Park Tae-hui, 34, spoke fluent Korean but used Chinese in the kitchen. He came from Harbin with his wife and daughter two-and-half years ago. The restaurant was small, clean and well-lit. Each table came with a rectangular pit for a charcoal grill. The menu board on the wall listed nothing we’d seen before at other Chinese restaurants in Korea. We ordered yangkkochi (lamb skewers), dakttongjip (chicken gizzard), hyeolgwan (lamb’s vein), jire (lamb’s spleen), mechuri (quail), mulmandu (dumplings) and oksusu-guksu (corn noodle soup). There was a curious item, called sosing, we didn’t recognize. Mr. Kim paused, looking a little flushed, and then blurted, “Bull’s dick!”
One order of 10 skewers costs 3,000 to 6,000 won (about $2-5). “In China, 10 pieces cost 100 won,” said Mr. Park, who pre-grilled the meat before bringing it to the table.
Side dishes included peanuts and Chinese-style cabbage kimchi. We loved the hot dumplings stuffed with celery. The noodle soup was similar to Japanese ramen but stronger thanks to its kimchi topping and hearty broth, which Mr. Park said makes diners come back.
All the skewers were heavily spiced. They also came with a plate of dipping powder ― a mixture of roasted sesame seeds, red chili pepper and oregano. The lamb had no meat odor ― the spices and smoky flavors worked wonders. I’m not a fan of chicken gizzard, but because of the overpowering spices, I actually got it mixed up with the lamb. Small cream-colored slabs of lamb veins were similar to rubbery cow viscera. The long, dark-purple spleen had the consistency and taste of cow liver; my tablemate thought it was like blood sausage and ate it all, but I couldn’t get past a couple trial bites.
A roasted quail on the skewer made us feel like it was hunting season in the Chinese countryside. The tiny bird, flattened and sliced in half, yielded only a few morsels; it tasted like dark meat from a chicken but slightly more gamey.
Now for the grilled bull penis. The sliced meat appeared glossy, semi-transparent and was slathered in bright orange spices. It’s slightly chewy, but none of us could eat more than a bite or two, knowing what it was. However, the dish kept our conversation lively Meanwhile, the powerful yet wonderfully aromatic shots of Lao Chao Yang, a Chinese soju (10,000 won), wiped out unnecessary thoughts for the memorably festive dinner.
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 834-5492.
Hours: Late afternoon-2 a.m.
Credit cards: Not accepted.
Parking: Nearby paid parking.
Location: Daerim subway station, line 2, exit 8, or line 7, exit 11. Walk about three blocks down Jungang-ro street in front of the subway station.
Lamb skewers dipped in acid
Two years ago the Korean media reported that Korean-Chinese immigrants love dog meat shabu shabu. Although we searched Garibong 1-dong, it seems that many restaurants specializing in dog meat had closed down.
Asking around on the street, we found Dongbei Huoguo, one of the oldest shabu shabu restaurants in the area. It opened in December 2000 at the end of Uma-gil, a small thoroughfare lined with shops, groceries and eateries.
The owner, Kim Dong-sung, 25, emigrated to Korea in 2000 with his mother. His wife and children are back in their hometown of Jilin, China. Mr. Kim speaks fluent Korean, but said that the Korean used in Seoul was very different from what he spoke at home. After making money in Korea, he said he wanted to resume his life in China. Near the small, kitchen were rows of Chinese soju, which Mr. Kim said, were not sold in ordinary Korean stores.
The specialty at Dongbei was lamb shabu shabu (10,000 won per person). It comes with a divided pot with two kinds of broths (one spicy and one mild), a meat and veggie plate and dipping sauce. The spread was similar to regular huoguo, or Chinese shabu shabu, which is available in other parts of Seoul.
Mr. Kim told us to put frozen tofu, dried tofu and kikurage mushroom in the broth first. Then the sliced lamb, bok choy and glass noodles. He also showed us how to spice up our dipping sauce. On top of creamy peanut-based sauce, we were told to put red tofu paste, green pepper paste, chopped coriander leaves, green chili pepper and green onion.
The ingredients cooked just like ordinary shabu shabu, and the familiar ritual of dipping each ingredient into the sauce followed. However, when we took our first bites into the boiled meat dipped in we-don’t-know-what sauce, we felt it was a real adventure. After the third bite I started feeling queasy, and had to do something right away in order to prevent a major culinary fiasco ― we needed our own dipping sauce.
Looking through bottles on the table, I selected soy sauce and red chili pepper paste, which I put in a small bowl. I also found a small green bottle that might have come from a science lab circa 1970. The Korean label read “bingchosan” or glacial acetic acid. Foolishly, I sniffed it, and it nearly burned away my nasal membrane. Decades ago, Korean chefs used the acid as a vinegar substitute, but it was long banned for cooking because of its corrosive nature. To this day, some Koreans use the acid at home to burn off freckles ― only to end up with scars on their faces.
Well, we were almost immersed in the life of the Korean-Chinese. A drop of harsh acid and a bottle of Chinese soju (8,000 won) made our shabu shabu enjoyable at last. A group of ethnic Koreans near our table curiously but secretly laughed at the three strangers making an awkward fuss.
On our way back to the real Korea, we once again felt pangs of sweet nostalgia. Behind us was Mr. Kim, short of breath and pink from the cold, who had followed us on a bicycle to hand us the soju bottle we forgot to bring with us.
Dongbei Huoguo (Dongbuk Shabu Shabu)
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 861-2019.
Hours: 11a.m.-midnight daily.
Credit cards: Not accepted.
Parking: Nearby paid parking.
Location: Get off at Garibong 1-dong station, line 1, or Namguro station, line 7, exit 2. Walk straight about 10 minutes on Uma-gil to the end of the street.
by Ines Cho
Reporting by Jin Hyun-ju and Brett Stewart