▲ A plate of raw pheasant slices goes well with broth. Photos courtesy Yang Yong Jin
According to Yang Yong Jin, a Jeju traditional food expert, hunting pheasants in the chilly days of winter occupies important youth memories for many Jeju islanders in their 40s and older. Back then, it was not hard to see pheasants flying down from the forest to a village looking for food when the snow started to fall on Mt. Halla. Even children used to catch them easily using traps called Ggweong-ko, and still many pheasants remained after the hunting, proving that Mt. Halla was a perfect habitat.
The close relationship with pheasants in Jeju people’s lives can be traced back in Tamnajichobon, a book record of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which showed that people in Jeju mountain areas paid their taxes with one pheasant and three of its eggs, while others living along the coast, who accounted for most of the population of Jeju, paid with a chicken and its three eggs. From this we can assume that a large percentage of mountain area residents were involved in pheasant hunting.
Jeju residents in the mountain areas used to store the hunted birds in the snow and treated guests with a dish of raw breast meat, drying the leftovers in the wind. Many mountain villages, though, were ruined and emptied following the notorious April 3 Massacre on Jeju, and those traditions become gradually forgotten with many of the survivors of the events settling down in the sea villages. Moreover, the new roads that had been built around the mountain area brought about a significant decrease in the number of pheasants as a result of reduced habitats.
There are hunting grounds for fowl, some of which are available year round, and it is not hard to find restaurants which serve pheasant meat. However, those places cater more to the palate of tourists than to those looking for a traditional delicacy. In fact, hunting used to be a good source of foreign currency, especially from Japan. The Jeju government opened the first hunting ground in 1969 to attract more foreign visitors to the island, and more than a thousand people a year visited the island to shoot pheasants throughout its peak period during the 1980s. However, these prosperous days are no more partly because of a wider range of leisure sports choices on Jeju.
Unfortunately most young people on Jeju now have to rely on their grandparents’ memory if they want to listen to stories and advice on the diverse ways of cooking pheasant. These include Ggweong-yeot, a sort of taffy containing pheasant broth. Mr. Yang laments currently that is considered just a souvenir by many. Its nutritional and cultural value are underestimated.
Before the weather gets cold in winter, Jeju islanders would make Ggweong-yeot by adding a pheasant in the taffy making process and boiling it down for a long time. According to Mr. Yang, the value of pheasants is more recognized as an ingredient to make Ggweong-yeot than as a meat which is very different from the mainland. In short, one or two spoons of Ggweong-yeot per day has proved its nutritional value by supplying enough protein for the old through a long winter.
You may wonder why pheasants are considered to be a winter food, as they can be seen all year around. A lack of food during winter is responsible in part for this view, but Mr. Yang’s explanation for the reason is very simple saying the meat of pheasants is most delicious in winter. However, one pheasant is usually too small to feed a whole family, and this is thought to be the origin of Ggweong Memil Kalguksu, pheasant buckwheat noodles.
Yang Yong Jin went on to explain that all food tastes best when it is cooked in combination with that which is produced in the same season. Buckwheat was a good staple food especially in winter, when Jeju’s stony soil and strong winds deter rice and most grains from growing. Moreover local tradition holds that buckwheat is the best combination with the pheasant meat, cleaning the blood and acting as a fever suppressant.
A radish is also never left out of the mix because it helps remove the toxic substances of buckwheat and helps digest it in the body. It is believed the cultivation of buckwheat on Jeju started back in around the 14th century when the Mongolians, who wanted to make their colonial people suffer from its toxic nature (which made digestion harder), brought the grains. Jeju islanders were wise enough to overcome their mischievous intention by cooking them with radish.
Ggweong shabu-shabu is considered to be one of the favorite dishes in pheasant restaurants, where the raw pheasant slices are served and and each slice is cooked in the broth. But the word, shabu-shabu originates from Japan and misleads people into thinking the cooking style’s origin was also from Japan. Yang Yong Jin emphasizes that a record of the cooking method was, in fact, found back in the Three Kingdoms Period (1st century BCE to 7th century CE), meaning it has a history of more than a thousand years. In this sense, it seems more reasonable to call the dish Ggweong Toryeom, which has the same meaning in Korean and it is actually being used in some restaurants. This might confuse some people into thinking that they are different dishes.
Jeju is a small region compared to the whole mainland of Korea, but its cultural diversity, partly due to the mountain barrier, cannot be underestimated even when the ways of pheasant hunting differ in each village. However, much of this culture is recalled only by older folk and is rapidly being forgotten by the younger people.
Likewise, the food culture of pheasant cooking is not recognized to be as important, making most people believe that pheasant buckwheat noodle is just one of those well-being food options and that pheasant taffy is just one of the touristic select products, meaning that Jeju islanders’ proud pheasant culture needs adding to the list of Jeju’s highly endangered assets. A revival is sorely needed.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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