▲ A bowl of gogiguksu contains pork slices, Japanese-influenced noodles and a story that depicts Jeju's recent past and the island's financial situation before and after the IMF crisis. Photo by Darryl Coote
This question loomed throughout my last encounter with Jeju cuisine expert Yang Yong Jin. On a warm February evening Yang came by the Jeju Weekly office to pick up my translator and me and drive us to a restaurant of his choosing. It wasn’t far, essentially just down the street, across from the Jeju Culture and Arts Center. To my surprise there was nowhere to park. The street was lined with cars, and they were not there to see Nanta, but for noodles. Specifically, Japanese noodles.
Guksumadang was packed, but even so it was not long after we were seated that a large plate of rubbery-looking meat was brought to our table.
“This,” said Yang, “is Jeju traditional pig’s foot.”
He picked up a toe and tore flesh from the bone.
“Generally, in Korean terms the pig’s foot is cut under the knee. This is cut at the middle of the shin. This is Jeju style,” he said.
I picked up a toe that still had its nail intact and took a bite. The meat was cold (as is common in Jeju), salty, and very chewy. This pig’s foot is a traditional Jeju food, said Yang, only because of a small variation in its preparation.
“It also has a lot of gelatin and collagen so it is good for the complexion,” he said.
Traditionally, like all pork on Jeju, this was a festival food due to its rarity and cost. At the restaurant the plate before us was only 12,000 won, but historically the effort needed to produce this many pig’s feet came with a much higher price.
But the pig’s foot was not the reason Yang brought us. Again, within minutes of ordering, at a speed that seemed impossible due to the crowd, three bowls of gogiguksu were brought to our table. The noodles were thick and they swam in a milky broth among a handful of chives and a couple of slices of pork.
This dish as it sat before me was only two decades old, said Yang, but to him it is a traditional Jeju food because of the history it represents.
“These noodles come from Japan,” he said. “Traditionally on Jeju we didn’t have noodles.”
He continued that the noodles were introduced during the Japanese occupation and were considered a delicacy only available to the affluent. Jeju did not have noodles before the colonized period because their preparation was very time-consuming. Then, noodles were served with eggs and bean sprouts. It was a sought after dish and was popular for only a short period of time.
“After the Korean War and Korea became richer, noodles became an inexpensive food, so these noodles disappeared for several decades,” Yang said.
It seemed odd to me that noodles were considered a delicacy, came with a hefty price, and yet at the same time were inexpensive to make. Yang explained that the noodles were expensive, but after the war, they could be mass-produced, eliminating the lengthy preparation process, which made for a high cost.
“But after the IMF crisis people were again looking for cheap food,” Yang said.
This brought about Noodle Street, as it is officially known. I had not noticed, but the entire side of the street adjacent to the Jeju Culture and Arts Center houses only noodle restaurants, which serve essentially the same dish. The street even has big bright signs with smiling bowls of noodles to indicate the street’s merchandise.
Before 1995, Yang continued, there was only one noodle restaurant. It had three tables, but after the financial crisis, the place was bursting at the seams with people looking for inexpensive nutritious food. Other restaurants opened beside it to accommodate, and soon there was an entire street of noodle restaurants.
“This is traditional Jeju food,” said Yang.
“But how, how is it Jeju traditional food if the noodles are from Japan?” I asked.
“Only the noodles come from Japan,” said Yang. “The soup is traditional on Jeju.”
I looked at the translucent white broth as Yang remarked that elsewhere in the world it is clear. In the Jeju version of the dish the color is from boiled pork broth. Yes, he said, others do use the pork broth for noodles, but ramen noodles. Only Jeju uses pork broth with these Japanese noodles. In other places the broth is not white because they do not boil it with bones.
What makes this dish a Jeju one is a detail so small that it seems barely a distinction at all. It was good. It was noodles with pork, nothing to write home about. But the importance of this dish, what it says about Jeju, how its rise and fall in popularity and necessity mirrors the financial state of Jeju, is something to write about.
It was good and dark by the time we finished and stepped out on to the street. As far as I could see it was all noodle shops, a good two kilometers worth.
As we walked to the car Yang said that as sort of a celebration of the noodle on the 11th of every month the restaurants give a discount of 500 won.
“Why the 11th?” I asked?
Because ones look like noodles, said Yang.
(Interpretation by Koh Yu Kyung)
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