Travel : Korea : Sokcho

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Whatever the sort of journeying you prefer, travel around South Korea is accessible and so rewarding. Every time I take even a day trip beyond Seoul’s city limits, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. If you aren’t the type to plan, travel groups are the way to go. My style of travel involves little research and a lot of flexibility. I like to show up and see what happens.

Midweek before a long weekend at the end of May, we decided to go away for certain. I unearthed an outdated Lonely Planet Guide left behind by a former teacher, pressed for time and eager to escape. I only wanted a quick description of a few spots we could reach by bus. The rest we’d find on our own.

We chose a destination closest to two of Korea’s most famous tourist attractions on slightly false assumptions. I imagined a quaint fishing village on a desolate beach, though nowhere in LP did I read about such a place. Sokcho is a port city with a population close to 90,000, and during the summer, the beaches are packed with tourists. A lot of people visit Sokcho on their way to hike Seoraksan. Not us. We wanted catharsis from a different source. Say, the kind that requires as much exertion as a walk from our room to dinner.

We had 36 hours to spend. This is what we did ate.

We met at the East Seoul Bus Terminal on a cool and hazy morning, thirty minutes early, indifferent to the coastal rainy weather forecast. Something about a gritty, ugly bus station shouts, “Freedom!” with more audacity than an airport ever could. Our driver didn’t waste any time. We left at 9:30 sharp, and as he gunned it down the expressway, he made liberal use of his horn and wove around cars like a desperado in a high-speed chase. I leaned against the seat and swore under my breath, calling up images of foamy water, glassy oysters, weathered fishing boats, an illuminated lighthouse. No one else seemed bothered by our dear driver’s style, of course. What the hell, I thought. I slid out of my seatbelt and began to feel the rush of liberty that only a bus driving straight out of town can deliver.

As promised, we pulled into Sokcho’s bus station four hours later. Hungry, eager, and without a plan, we picked up a map from the station’s tourist office and chose the direction that would lead us to water. Red and blue tents lined the wall of the closest port. Ajumas chopped live squid with agility and served it raw. Men fished standing and cast the starfish aside that they pulled up from the end of their lines. Ecologically harmful, they grumbled when we asked why. People moved slower, used pay phones, and smiled outright. Cars didn’t honk. Cars yielded. To pedestrians, it should be noted. This was no village, but the vibe here was distinctly different.

We were hungry, but raw squid on an empty stomach wasn’t going to cut it, so we walked back in the direction we’d come to a restaurant on the corner of a noisy intersection. A chalkboard menu promised makgeolli and pajeon, classic Korean fare on a rainy day. It wasn’t raining yet, but the clouds looked filled to the brim. Two men were sitting inside, and one of them was wearing an apron. Bingo.

The potato pancakes had crackling edges, tender centers, and a hot pepper dipping sauce red as blood and weighted with pepper flakes. They weren’t heavy like a lot of potato pancakes can be, and we took small bites in a desperate attempt to make them last longer. The makgeolli was cold and smooth and just astringent enough.

Then something happened that’s never happened before. The owner saw me writing, which I do often enough when I’m out, but I never get any attention for it, and this is usually the point. When he found out I was writing about his food, he went straight back to the kitchen without another word. Soon after, he emerged with a plate of cooked snails and vegetables dressed liberally with a cold but incendiary sauce called golbaengi muchim, a popular plate to share while drinking beer or soju. He was proud of his recipe, and for good reason. Canned snails are usually used inland, but he had the luxury and proximity of using fresh. To be sure, fresh snail is the ticket. The sweet, sour, fiery sauce set my mouth aflame, but I wouldn’t stop eating. It was deliciously addictive, and if he was gracious enough to give us a plate of food on the house, the least we could do was to lick it clean. I’ve got a soft spot for independent restaurants like his, especially when it’s evident that the owner cares deeply about the food he or she serves. If it were closer, I’d try to convince Kathryn to make it a part of our ritual. He gave us more than enough, and he probably would have spent the whole afternoon suggesting places to go and things to see had we asked. But we didn’t. We wanted more spontaneous meals, even if they weren’t as good as this.

That night, we ate twice more. Hoedeopbap, or bibimbap with raw fish, came with tiny sharp bones for what, I wondered. Texture? Extra calcium? Bones so tiny you have to feel them to get rid of them, if you’re not going to swallow them, and feel them you will, poking the inside of your cheeks and between your gums like an assault from an amateur dentist. It wasn’t all bad, though. Once home, I flossed diligently for a whole week.

No trip to a new town would be complete without a visit to its market, in my book. Jungang Market is right off the main drag through town, and the impressive array of dried fish and squid was something to see. Sokcho is also famous for its spicy and sweet style of a coveted Korean fried chicken called dakkanjung, and this is where you’ll find it. People travel to three specific cities in Korea best known for this chicken and wait for hours in line for a box of their own. We had to try it, but while we waited, our appetites waned. The line practically snaked its way through the open prep kitchen, and so we watched, intently. First the chickens were chopped to small pieces, bone-in, and battered. A runner carried the chickens to the fry station, his pink rubber gloves and the front of his shirt covered in wet floury paste, and another guy dropped them into the oil. One by one, he cooked the chickens until the batter turned crispy. A man stood below the fry station and waited for a green plastic basket to fill with each individual order of fried chicken, which he then tossed swiftly in a wok with syrupy, ginger-spiked sauce in front of his anticipative customers. A girl stood silently next to him with foil-lined boxes, and when each box was full, she tossed in a half-hearted fistful of sesame seeds over the top, closed the lid, and handed it over in an act of repetition. The people who kept these dakkanjung operations running worked hard and looked tired. When you’re churning out between four and five hundred orders on a weekday, the operation has to run predictably. It was an assembly line of grunt work, and not for the squeamish. As I watched, I kept thinking, “This is way too much chicken under one roof, and we’re going to throw half of ours away.” The whole side of the market was lined with shops selling the same thing in excessive quantities. I was conflicted between walking away out of morality and following through out of curiosity. In the end, we kept waiting until finally, the girl with the boxes slid one into our hands, reluctant as they were.

We sat on a bench and ate with our fingers, licking them clean once we were full. The first piece was delicious, but every piece after was cloyingly sweet. One order could feed four to six people. We were only two. But we’d gotten ourselves into this mess and we were going to get ourselves out of it. Fatefully, a stranger approached us with his friends and wanted to know what was in our box. He took a little convincing, but it wasn’t long before that chicken changed from our hands to his. There we were, attempting to swap our feelings of guilt with benevolence by giving away our leftovers. It was better, this way, though. And why are we so shy to share food with strangers, anyway? It’s the easiest, most grounding, and certainly one of the most appealing ice breakers I’ve ever come to know.

We took a taxi back to the beach, where the temperature was at least ten degrees cooler. Bright lights from squid boats bobbed against a black sky. Couples burrowed under blankets and umbrellas to shield their bodies from the wind. Fireworks lit up the surf and popped to the beat of breaking waves. A drunk girl held a sparkler while she stumbled around, cackling, finally sitting down hard like a clumsy baby learning to walk. Groups of friends sat on the sand and shot soju with samgyeopsal. No matter the circumstances, people in Korea will always find a way to cook meat over a fire. It’s brilliant.

The next day we took a recuperative walk along Haeoreumgil to Daepohang Port. After a quick scan of crab, squid, eel, and fish stalls, we doubled back to the beginning and walked slowly down the first row of tents with grilled shellfish, shrimp, and silver-skinned fish full of pink, glossy eggs named shishamo. When every stall is stocked with identical product, the pressure to make the right choice is big. It isn’t about the product at that point. It’s about the sales pitch and the spirit behind the delivery. We liked the no-bullshit attitude of the lady at the very last stall. She was rough in character but smooth when it counted, the type of personality whose smile you had to work for. When Chris asked her if she might throw in two extra shrimp for the same price of our place, she shot him a look that said, “You’ve got some nerve, pretty boy. But since you asked nicely, I’ll give you what you want.”

She cracked the pen shell we’d chosen in half, snipped up the meat, stirred in chopped onion, peppers, and a smooth, burnt sienna-colored sauce, and set it atop a charcoal fire that was next to our table. When the sauce was bubbling, she added shreds of cheese that melted into the mix. She grilled the scallops away from our table, but I watched her as she worked. After several seconds on the heat, they opened their bivalve shells slightly, clinging to the top shell furthest from the heat. With metal tongs, she pried apart the two shells, stacking the empty ones aside and leaving the meat to grill open-faced. When they were finished, she brought them on a plate beside whole grilled shrimp.

We toasted cold beer to our last meal in Sokcho and de-headed and peeled the shrimp. I took a leery bite of scallop. She’d cooked the entire mollusk, wasting nothing, and I didn’t know what to expect. Most Western restaurants serve only the round, opulent, deliciously wobbly part called the abductor muscle, and so that’s how we’ve come to know and adore scallops. But this was unreal, the way it was cooked wholly to tender perfection, and it reminded me how much there is to learn about food and the people behind everything we eat. Had I told her that elsewhere, people discard most of this generous thing, I’m not sure she would have believed me. Maybe if we’d had a few more days in Sokcho, we would have explored further inland away from the beach. Or maybe not. Maybe we would have spent the next few days at a table in this woman’s stall. We’d caught just a small glimpse of the city’s livelihood in the short span of 36 hours. But for us, it was enough.

Accommodations: Private condo rental. Try Welcome Condominiums or The House Hostel.

Bus Tickets: Try here for a transportation schedule, or here for express bus availability.

Food: Sokcho Jungang Market for green tea hoddeok, dried fish, and a host of other regional foods. Daepohang Port for grilled shellfish. Look for a woman in her late 30’s or early 40’s with a green handwritten menu hanging inside of her stall like the one in the photo above. She has the corner stall at the end of the row. She might be wearing a Yankees hat. For the corner restaurant with memorable potato pancakes and an unforgettable host, look for this address: Kangwondo Sokchosi Dongmyongdong 410-113. Phone: 010-2263-0446.

  • Nikoline

    Your writing makes me feel like I was there! When I am old and senile, I’ll probably be telling stories of when Jacqui and I went to Sokcho…

    Didn’t we give away (or at least attempt to) one of our State Fair foods? We had been going to so many places that the entree sized portion of wild rice meatballs was too much for us! And those buckets of Sweet Martha’s cookies are never good the next day, so we convinced our neighbors on the bus to share with us.

    • jlgabel

      oh yeah! Your memory is amazing. That State Fair trip was a blast, and I have a feeling Sweet Martha’s cookies would be wildly successful here.

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