▲ “In Japan the sea urchin is a delicacy. If you catch a sea urchin this big you can only eat a little of it. So it is even more prestigious than caviar,” explains Yang Yong Jin. Photo by Darryl Coote
While preparing for the third installment in our Flavors of Jeju series with Yang Yong Jin, an expert on Jeju traditional cuisine, I discovered through a phone call that other media organizations were interested in the topic. Of these, KBS in particular was hoping to interview me and my trusty translator.
I was quick to inform them that we were mere journalists and knew little of the topic, that Yang was the man they were looking for. To this they replied that Yang had suggested they speak to us. In the end it was decided that KBS could tag along and record our upcoming interview with Yang at the Jangchun Sikdang restaurant.
When my translator and I arrived at the restaurant in our Sunday best, I was somewhat surprised to see Yang (who for our previous meetings had always arrived late) already discussing food logistics with the KBS producer/director. After some set dressing and other adjustments for the television audience, bowls of seaweed soup with sea urchin and shellfish were brought to the table along with sliced steamed black pork, called Dombae gogi, served on a small four legged wooden board.
“Traditionally, Jeju kitchens were covered with sand. They weren’t paved with tile. The original Dombae,” said Yang pointing to the wooden board that sat upon the table, “had much taller legs because you can’t eat off sand. It’s dirty. That is where the Dombae comes from.”
This antiquated practice, as a hearkening to Jeju’s past, is rather aesthetically pleasing. I took a piece of pork, dipped it into a dish of small shrimp, placed it in my mouth, and contrived a nice big smile for the camera. It was very good, the shrimp was incredibly salty, but what was most surprising was that the meat was cold. Yang said that this culinary technique is uncommon everywhere else in Korea. He continued to say that this meal was traditionally for celebrations only and that the pork was either steamed or boiled so that none of it would go to waste – the juices from the meat were to be used for soup.
The table had an array of sauces which Yang said were for modern tastes and that originally only salt and soy sauce were used. He was quite interested in this fact, stating that the Jeju people had understood without any “scientific knowledge” that these ingredients prevent the meat from spoiling on hot summer days.
While the pork was typically served only during celebrations due to the rarity of meat on the island, the sea urchin and shellfish soups were an everyday staple popular with haenyeo (Jeju women divers) and seaside communities. Yang was quick to point out that sea urchin is quite popular with Japanese tourists because of how expensive it is in their native country.
“In Japan the sea urchin is a delicacy. If you catch a sea urchin this big [indicating with his fingers] you can only eat a little of it. So it is even more prestigious than caviar,” he said. Only the eggs of the sea urchin are deemed edible, and due to the demand for the dish by tourists, many restaurants on the island have been encouraged to deviate from Jeju’s traditional recipes and add other more common sea eggs to the sea urchin soup to increase profits.
This was less tasty to my carnivore pallet than the pork, as was the shellfish soup, known as bomal. What is to be most enjoyed about these dishes, Yang remarked, is their aroma which emits the essence of Jeju’s seas.
During lunch my translator and I were frequently asked questions by the KBS director about Jeju food. What was so peculiar is that both Yang and the director were convinced that foreigners, and even Koreans on the mainland, were disgusted by its appearance and smell.
“Do you find Jeju’s food too hideous to eat?” asked the KBS director as I chewed a tender piece of pork. This notion confused me, and I could not understand how anyone would think the food that lay before me was anything but delicious. Still, the question came up time and time again. Instead of concluding that Jeju food was appealing to the eye or that the pork was not in fact “smelly,” both the KBS director and Yang deemed me to be an adventurous person.
Coincidentally, with The Jeju Weekly’s exploration of the island’s indigenous cuisine, the government has taken an interest in promoting its dishes to the world and appears to be quite self-conscious about the project. I was asked what could be done to make the dishes more pleasing, more appetizing, more palatable. How can foreigners be encouraged to try the island’s native foods?
Both my translator and I told them that the food had no need to be altered, and though neither of us supports commodifying culture, the only problem we saw was lack of exposure, that without being assigned this series I would have no knowledge of what was traditional Jeju food and what was Korean.
After the interview had come to an end and KBS had filmed several takes of us enjoying our meal, I left the restaurant still baffled as to why Jeju feels there is something wrong with its food. I wasn’t given the opportunity to ask Yang as he promptly left with the director to film in another location, but on our next outing together it will be the first question I ask.
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