Food Tourism 4: South Chungcheong Province
This is the fourth part of our series “Food Tourism,” which highlights local delicacies and the culinary history and culture of Korea’s eight provinces. This time, we introduce our readers to Chungcheongnam-do (South Chungcheong Province).
Chungcheongnam-do is located across the southwestern part of the heart of the Korean Peninsula. In the west there are vast, wide mudflats and sandy beaches covered with pebbles along the indented fjord-like coastline. The Charyeongsan mountain range runs through the middle of the area, from the northeast to southwest. Originating from the Taebaeksan mountain range near Odaesan Mountain, it passes through the interior of Chungcheongnam-do to reach Biin Bay in Seocheon County. The Charyeongsan mountain range stretches 50 kilometers across the province, but the range’s altitude is not very high. The eastern part is relatively higher than the western part, with the larger mountains in the middle. The average altitude of the region, overall, stands at less than 100 meters.
The region is blessed with four seasons and a temperate climate. The annual average temperature remains between 11 to 13 degrees Celsius. It only goes down to -1 or -2 degrees Celsius in the middle of winter and goes up to 24 or 26 degrees Celsius in the summer. Compared to its sibling Chungcheongbuk-do (North Chungcheong Province), which is in the center of the peninsula, Chungcheongnam-do has a cuisine that is rich in sea food, thanks to its proximity to the sea.
[Gul bap: oysters on top of a thick bed of rice]
Oysters, rich in glycogen and zinc, have long been known to be a dish that brings good health and beauty. TheDonguibogam, Korea’s medicinal manual from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), says, “Oysters can help make people healthier and develop a fine skin texture and color.”
Oysters became more popular in this region after 1984 when the sea walls were constructed across Cheonsuman Bay as part of a land reclamation project. The sea walls, where the seawater and freshwater mix, created an ideal environment for the microorganisms that fall prey to oysters. Moreover, the large tidal flats of Cheonsuman Bay and the large difference between high tide and low tide, bring a moderate amount of sunlight to the oysters, giving them a more chewy texture.
Raw oysters placed on a bed of steamed rice makes a very tasty dish that anyone, even those who have lost their appetite, can still finish in an instant. When oysters are in season from December to February, this dish attracts many visitors to Boryeong County, a coastal town in Chungcheongnam-do at the mouth of Cheonsuman Bay. The dish goes great with some seasoned chives, or with some gim, a type of dried seaweed.
[Jeotgal jeongsik: seafood preserved in brine with rice and various side dishes]
Thanks to the Geumgang River that flows through it, the upriver town of Ganggyeong has become a popular inland port and trading center for agricultural and marine items. A number of boats travel back and forth between Ganggyeong, located deep inland, and Gunsan, at the mouth of the Geumgang River. Until Korean independence in 1945, Ganggyeong was one of the three biggest market towns in Korea, along with Daegu in Gyeongsangnam-do and Pyongyang, which is now part of North Korea. Seafood items from the West Sea were offered for sale at auction, having been shipped immediately from the sea, and the leftovers were fermented with salt and stored in underground tunnels. In the course of these practices, jeotgal, a salted seafood dish, came into being.
The Ganggyeong Market temporarily declined during the Japanese colonial period, partly because of the railroad, and then it was revived by local merchants in the 1970s. To this day, residents of Ganggyeong have maintained their tradition of digging tunnels sometimes as deep as seven meters in which they store the jeotgal pots. As the jeotgal marinates, nutrients such as minerals, proteins, fat and amino acid all get strengthened.
The table setting for jeotgal provides at least ten different types of salted seafood, all representative of the Chungcheongnam-do region, including pollack tripe (changnan), scallops (garibi), anchovies (myeolchi), small octopuses (nakji) and squid (ojingeo). One bite of each and you want to finish your whole bowl of rice as quickly as possible.
[Clam shabu shabu: thinly-sliced clams boiled in a vegetable broth]
Clams from the region are sometimes referred to as “Noble Clams” or “Golden Clams.” In Korean, they are calledsaejogae, as its flesh resembles the beak of a bird (sae). Saejogae are the size of a child’s fist and it looks similar to pijogae, or ark clams. Fishermen in Hongseong-gun (Hongseong County), at the northern end of Cheonsuman Bay, use a fine-meshed net to catch the saejogae from the bay’s muddly bottom, especially during the winter months from December to March.
Saejogae live in mudflats, normally 5 to 30 meters deep. The 1984 land reclamation project in Chungcheongnam-do brought sand to the northern end of Cheonsuman Bay, providing an ideal living spot for the saejogae. The construction of the sea walls created at the end of the bay two artificial lakes: Ganwolho Lake and Bunamho Lake. Traditionally, the saejogae caught in the region were mostly exported to Japan, where it has become the prime ingredient in some high-end sushi dishes. Finally in the 1990s, domestic foodies began to appreciate the clam’s quality.
A slightly blanched saejogae has a soft texture and leaves a pleasant and savory aftertaste in the mouth. In December, the ports around Hongseong County attract a crowd of visitors who flock to the area to taste the in-season saejogae. It is best served in the form of a shabu shabu dish, where it is slightly boiled in a vegetable broth.
After finishing up the clams, some restaurants offer noodles in the leftover broth, which also provides a truly amazing taste.
The next time you visit Chungcheongnam-do, we hope you’ll have the chance to taste the gul bap oysters of Boryeong, the inland jeotgal salted seafood of Ganggyeong and the thinly-sliced saejogae boiled clams of Hongseong-gun. Enjoy your meal.
(Food images courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organization)
Original Article by Lee Seung-ah