▲ Jeju traditional food researcher Yang Yong Jin. Photo by Darryl Coote
I was to meet Yang Yong Jin, Jeju traditional food expert and founder of the Jeju Traditional Food Research Center, at exactly 11 a.m. at the Dasoni restaurant, which is only a 3,000 won cab ride from City Hall. Though many restaurants on the isle claim to serve authentic Jeju cuisine, only a handful actually do – Yang selected Dasoni because it was one of the few that live up to its claim.
Yang arrived shortly after I did. We shook hands, exchanged business cards and then Yang went to the menu printed on hanji (Korean traditional paper).
“Jeju food is usually visually unattractive,” Yang said, “because they were made out of necessity and they have functional reasons, but if we learn the stories behind them the food will be more enjoyable.”
In my experience traditional dishes I have tasted that were developed in areas that have seen strife throughout their history tend to be a mélange of foods, with each ingredient added for significance rather than taste, and served in a specific manner that reflects the environment in which the originators lived. With Jeju’s turbulent history I assumed that behind every vegetable, every place setting lay an interesting story that revealed a different aspect of the island's past.
Yang scanned the menu. “I’m trying to pick out the best autumn Jeju food,” he said, before elaborating that until recently most of what was eaten on the island depended on the seasons. He settled on a couple bowls of maemil (buckwheat) noodle soup and bomal (Jeju dialect for kodong, a small shell fish) chowder.
Yang told me that his interest in Jeju fare was passed on to him from his mother who trained with the first Korean chef to teach the country’s native cuisine and she has been studying the culinary art for almost 50 years. Yang, now with his mother in her mid-70s, is continuing her work through his Jeju Traditional Food Research Center.
“Food is a reflection of lifestyle and cultural history,” Yang said. “You go to the so-called Jeju traditional restaurants around here and 80 percent of them use the wrong recipe or the wrong method. But now, people think that they are Jeju traditional foods and I think that is a distortion of Jeju’s history and it’s small, but a significant distortion that needs to be fixed.”
He explained that much of the original recipes had been lost during the Korean War and the 70s political movement to modernize the island. Western and other Korean food, predominately from the Jeolla province, were infused with Jeju dishes.
▲ A bowl of bomal chowder. Photo courtesy Yang Yong Jin
As we waited for our meal, Yang said that maemil, a knee-high triangular shaped grain that grows in harsh conditions, is not native to the island and came to Jeju with the Chinese when they conquered the Tamna Kingdom.
“[The Chinese] sent people to Jeju to breed horses with the purpose of invading Japan.” Maemil, used as horse feed, was brought to the island by the conquers and was given to the Jeju citizens to eat with the purpose of degrading them. “It was not for human consumption because it was hard to peel and the Chinese would eat them unpeeled and they would get sick. The Jeju people adapted to it by eating it with radish because radish has enzymes that help digestion.” This tradition continues today, even though maemil has been genetically modified to have a softer peel and there are machines to remove it, radish still accompanies maemil at every Jeju traditional restaurant.
Yang said that though kimchi has become synonymous with Korea, cabbage has only been in the country for 400 to 500 years, while the radish has been here much longer and Jeju produces the most and consumes the most radish in the country.
Our entrées arrived in traditional handmade Jeju clay bowls. Both dishes were of the soup variety, which Yang explained was common for traditional dishes since the province was once very poor and to produce more with less, ingredients were boiled together in water and served with broth.
The maemil noodle soup had a surprising strong taste, though no spices were added, for as Yang stated, “Jeju food is not heavily spiced because much of it is seafood and has salt in it.”
The bomal chowder resembled a porridge and had a mild taste. It was made from soft rice, thinly sliced bomal and an assortment of vegetables. Yang said that the shell fish was once considered to be a “treat” for Jeju locals “because they mostly ate rice with harsh grains.” Traditionally, due to Jeju’s temperate climate that supported agriculture year round, fresh vegetables made up the majority of the islander’s diet, bomal was consumed for its protein.
As we finished our meal, Yang Hee Soon, the owner of Dasoni joined us for tea. A former student of Yang’s mother, she reiterated the importance in preserving Jeju’s traditional culture through its cuisine. Her restaurant is designed with authentic Jeju décor, though Yang said that historically venues which originally served Jeju cooking would look very different, more rustic and less comfortable. Yang Yong Jin said that several former students of his mother have opened traditional Jeju restaurants throughout the island like Dasoni and I hope for the next Flavors of Jeju article Yang will take me to one of them so as to learn more of Jeju through its cuisine.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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