Why are South Koreans so great

Korea - far more than kimchi

A day at the Noryangjin Fish Market is a crash course in non-verbal communication. Nobody here understands the languages ​​with which we (Western Europeans) like to appear cosmopolitan. People speak, call and shout anyway. Noryangjin is not a pretty little farmers market, but rather big and chaotic. Fishmongers at small stalls offer everything the sea has to offer, from plankton and mussels to lobsters and king crabs to the really big things. Whale and shark may not be found at every stand, but you will definitely find them. It just takes longer. Further back then the smell becomes much stronger. In meter-long rows stands bucket after bucket, can after can with rotten fish in every conceivable degree of decay. Here you can feel the contact with the culinary soul of Korea for the first time.

The highlight of this market: You buy the fresh goods at the stand and bring them up the stairs to one of the cookshops. Less than a quarter of an hour later, the meal is ready. If you want the fish you buy raw, say "hoe" and get everything you offer the cook - filleted, finely sliced ​​and served with kimchi, freshly grated wasabi, a (stunningly delicious) fermented bean paste (doenjang) and a handsome lettuce leaf, for everything to wrap. Anyone who was impressed by the impressive range of king crabs at the market should order Bokkeumbap, a great rice dish made from fried rice, kimchi, vegetables and crab meat. It is served in a crab shell, if desired, refined with Aekjeot, an intense fish sauce.

Change of scene. In the south of the country, in the Jangheung region, not far from the Korean south coast on the East China Sea. In the north of Jangheung there are a few densely forested mountains, such as the Jeamsan, the Sambisan or the Sajasan. The tea bushes of Heewon Lee, one of the last producers of Cheongtaejeon, grow on a slope of the Sajasan. The clearing on the mountain slope is about the size of a football field, overgrown with wild tea. The harvest (late April to late May) is lengthy, laborious and dangerous. The harvested leaves are briefly boiled and then - as soon as they have changed their color - pounded in a mortar. The smell in the rooms in which this happens is indelibly burned into the memory. It is a full, intense, expressive, fresh-vegetable fragrance, characterized by fruity tones. The paste created by the mortar is pressed into wheels in small molds and later dried in terracotta amphorae. Cheongtaejeon is a tea of ​​incredible finesse and one of the most elegant that Korea has to offer for the palate. And it shows that the Koreans have developed a true mastery when it comes to fermentation. Not just with fish or soy. Even with tea. And cabbage.

Kimchi, Chinese cabbage fermented with lactic acid, is Korea's national dish. It is both an ingredient and the basis of many dishes. Depending on the region, salt, chilli, garlic and fish sauce are added. There are over 200 different recipes for making kimchi. The number of unreported cases is probably much higher. In rural areas in particular, the recipes are passed on from generation to generation, which has led to kimchi becoming part of the country's culinary DNA.

The classics of Korean cuisine are known in this country. Bulgogi (slices of marinated beef grilled on the table) or bibimbap (leftover food made from rice, vegetables, eggs, sprouts and mushrooms). They don't taste much different here than in Korea. Anyone wanting to get closer to the country's cuisine can probably not avoid visiting the country. And look out for Maeun-tang (a super-spicy fish soup with wheat noodles), Jeonbok-juk (a sensational millet porridge with abalone from Jejudo Island) or Bosintang (please google it yourself). Just this much: the Koreans also call it Meongmeongtang, which literally translates as “woof soup”.


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