▲ Chef Kang Chang Kun slices up giant grouper. It is served with a number of other cuts from the fish at Jinmi Myeongga in Daejeong, Seogwipo City. Photos by Yun Seong Un
Dageumbari is Jeju’s most expensive dish, commanding 200,000 won per kilogram.
On an island that historically champions thrift and after two years of trying to coax various people to join, always being met with the contestations of “that’s too much” or “it’s too expensive,” at last I finagled three coworkers to enjoy the best at Jinmi Myeongga (Kang Chang Kun Dagumbari), on one of my final nights in Korea.
“There’s no McFilet here,” explained the first coworker, directing his cynicism at his disheveled underling.
Only authenticity is served up at the renowned restaurant in the shadows of Sanbangsan in Daejeong, Seogwipo City.
One maxim is true at Korean restaurants on Jeju: No matter the cost, the inside decorum is the same; rich women or poor men are not distinguishable because of the similarly dressed nationals, either in black suits or leisure suits. The background noise level from patrons is usually turned up to the max.
The differences at this dignified haunt lie in the bottled wine selections, international chef contest pictures, accolades from around the world, and pictures of notables adorning the inside and outside walls. At such a swanky serving place, how often would the owner come out and talk to his patrons on his own accord?
In a land of status symbols, there has to be a benchmark for food. On Jeju, dageumbari is it. Mr. Kang explained the pressing questions about the high cost.
According to the restaurant owner, dageumbari – also known as giant grouper – is rare because it is only caught during certain times of the year from March, but mostly during the fall when there is a northwest wind.
Also, there are so many imitations, which naturally push the value of the real deal upward.
Kang said fishing for dageumbari is hard since the fish are picky as to what they eat, so choosing the bait is even harder. They are called the “tigers” in the sea, so they will spit it out if they do not like something they have eaten, which of course, makes angling that much more intense.
Dageumbari are not caught in a net, rather off a boat by traditional fishing techniques, meaning with a hook.
And last, basic economics, there’s few fish, and much more demand. So hard to find, Kang personally has gone to Halong Bay (Vietnam), China, and the Philippines to find them. To provide customers dageumbari during the off season, he uses natural ones caught in China, when they are hard to catch on Jeju.
▲ A patent certificate for Kang's dageumbari recipe hangs on the wall of the restaurant. Photo by Todd Thacker
Kang, having participated in a worldwide culinary contest held a few years ago in Italy, placed in the top 100 out of a thousand entries. Undoubtedly, this place is genuine.
Our table ordered one kilogram of the pricey raw goods, a lot of yellowtail fish or bangeo (30,000 won per kg), and Jeju’s soju of choice, Hallasan.
The sides, at almost all raw fish restaurants on the island, are the same such as samplings of sea squirts, oysters (shellfish), squid, hanchi, garlic, bean paste, and peas in a pod.
Halfway through eating, coworker 1 piped up, “Too much talking, not enough drinking,” … “Which leads to a lot more talking,” coworker 2 finished.
Two things of note happened to be the wasabi was real, thick, and cleared the nasal passages clean as day. And served with dinner was the wheel of dageumbari parts, including the lips, liver, back, stomach, side, and scales. With four servings at the table, each person could try each piece.
Kang said 30 different cuts exist with each dageumbari and all of them taste different.
Skilled at eating raw fish, I did find the claims of dageumbari being meatier and chewier to be true. For what it is worth, general ramblings on the Korean Internet portal Naver claim Jeju’s dageumbari tastes better because there is a lot more to eat for the fish and the currents make the meat chewier.
However, for all fish having such a light taste, any additional oil or sauce overpowers the original flavor.
As for the fish parts, the lips do not deny.
“Give us a kiss,” coworker 1 said. “It’s slippery, it tastes like a first kiss, a first fish kiss.”
After consuming the stomach, words of milky and creamy were confessed.
Also on Jinmi Myeongga’s menu for this autumnal night, red-spotted grouper (200,000 won per kg), striped beakfish (180,000 won), seven band grouper (140,000 won), deep sea bass (140,000 won), large cole black fish (100,000 won), porgy (90,000 won), and bangeo were listed.
To finish the meal, dageumbari soup is served. A lot of bones, but masiiseoyo (delicious).
Cha-ching. The only pain of the night was paying the bill. Laying down six 50,000 won bills, and expecting to get 6,000 won in return, the 30,000 coming back was a welcomed, discounted surprise.
Here is to all the emotions dageumbari and soju together elicits: happiness and anger, glee and humor, inquisitiveness and joy.
(Additional reporting by Angela Kim)
Jinmi Myeongga (Kang Chang Kun Dagumbari) Address: 2072 Sagye-ri, Andeok, Seogwipo City Phone: 064-794-363
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