▲ A bowl of Jeju momguk. Photo courtesy Yang Yong Jin
This was the second time I was to meet Yang Yong Jin, a Jeju cuisine expert, and for the second successive occasion my translator and I were to wait at the restaurant for his arrival.
The restaurant, Woojin Haejangguk near Tapdong, had the look of being the Korean version of a greasy spoon; linoleum tiled floors, generic tables and dark walls. Utilitarian seemed to be the inspiration behind the décor and aesthetics was left way to the side, a mirror of its patrons who were mainly middle-aged men with hands chapped white and wearing work boots covered in dust. The restaurant was even christened after a dish with a particular usage; haejangguk, the hangover meal.
I don’t remember how long we waited, due to exhaustion from the amount of work we had weighing on our minds, but when he finally arrived, Yang was all smiles under his flat cap. He told us he was good, but very busy and then sat down.
“Today we are going to compare and contrast the same soup but with different materials,” he said.
He then went on to recount the story of chef Jean Georges’ trip to Jeju. “He’s French and one of the top three chefs in the world, according to the New York Times,” Yang said. While on the island Yang’s mother, also a Jeju cuisine expert, served him momguk which he said he loved. Georges explained that he lived on the border of Germany and France where thick pork soup is often consumed and momguk is very similar.
Meanwhile the waitress had come over to the table and Yang ordered two bowls of momguk and one of Jeju yukgaejang.
“In Jeju, they don’t make soups that require a lot of boiling,” he said. “But momguk is a festival soup. If there were a festival they would first catch the pig and killing it ... would be the announcement of the start of the festival.”
During Jeju’s poorer past a single pig represented a small fortune and though this dish was primarily prepared for celebrations and funerals, the slaughtering of a pig was akin to a festival itself. “Momguk represents Jeju’s communal nature. One man’s celebration is the whole village’s celebration basically. People wouldn’t think to be greedy and eat the pork by themselves but rather share it with their community,” Yang said.
Due to Jeju’s circumstances it was not common for meals to require much preparation, but momguk differs in that it is boiled for days before being considered ready to serve. After the pig is slaughtered, all of it is thrown into a big pot.
Yang put much emphasis on all of it; the intestines, feet, everything. Nothing of the pig would go to waste. Then it would boil for two days before either seaweed or bracken would be added to the broth which was then left to simmer for one more day.
“If you put seaweed into the broth it becomes momguk and if you put bracken in it becomes yukgaejang. These are the only types of hard broiled soups in Jeju,” Yang said.
During funerals or celebrations that span several days more water and ingredients would be thrown into the pot stretching the amount of servings from the single pig. It is not uncommon for the broth to be continuously boiled for nine days.
According to Yang these dishes have been eaten on Jeju for a long time and no documentation currently exists which states when they were first created. He explained they are seasonal dishes with the seaweed gathered during the winter and bracken harvested in the spring.
The bowls of momguk and yukgaejang were brought to the table. The broth that Yang had talked of was thicker than I had expected. Though essentially the same dish (only differing by one ingredient) they were completely different in appearance and taste. I preferred the yukgaejang and as I finished my bowl Yang explained that a recent study has shown that the seaweed in momguk neutralizes the pork’s fatty acids, which enhances the meat’s flavor and reduces oil intake.
As I swallowed the last spoonful of yukgaejang, Yang nonchalantly said “bracken is categorized as poisonous in the Western world. The only two places in the world that permit bracken are China and Korea. In China they use bracken for herbal remedies. Korea is the only place that eats bracken.”
“Really?” I asked.
Yes, said Yang and explained that when bracken undergoes photosynthesis the plant creates enzymes that deplete the body of vitamin B, which can eventually lead to blindness, joint degradation and other unpleasant physical conditions. But he reassured my translator and I that on Jeju bracken is picked “before it starts photosynthesis, which is in April.
When the bracken blossoms it creates this enzyme, but Jeju people pick it before that happens and boil it at least once, so it is safe to eat.”
As we relaxed after our meal and my hypochondriac tendencies calmed momentarily, Yang said that momguk restaurants in Jeju are on the decline and this restaurant, as the name suggests, did not always serve the traditional Jeju fare, but the less thick bean sprout soup. The reason for the disappearing dish is because while being prepared “it smells really bad and mainlanders and foreigners are really unaccustomed to it, so the only people who come here are Jeju natives. That is one of the difficulties of doing momguk right, is that it smells really bad and doesn’t attract mainlanders.”
This eatery’s success can be attributed to the fact that “this is where most Jeju native people lived. The castle walls use to go across this street and Jeju natives that use to come to this restaurant use to say that ‘this is from the mainland and is not thick enough for us, we don’t like it.’ So she started to do Jeju traditional momguk and bracken soup.” Another explanation for its thriving is that “they do a good job keeping the smell away and keeping the broth right,” Yang said.
I would agree with that since during the entire meal my olfactory facilities were not once accosted with any unpleasing aroma.
After the bill was paid, Yang invited the two of us to join him at his younger brother’s café for a drink and to continue our conversation that had just begun about Italian food. I accepted but my translator quickly reminded me of the work that needed to be done.
“There’s always time for a quick one,” I said and strolled out into the street trying to imagine the castle wall that had once been in its place.
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