Review: Birthday eats part II - Ge Guk Ji (게국지) and Ganjang Gejang (간장게장) from Anmyeondo Heh Song Kkot Ge Jib

For part of my birthday celebration, my friends and I went on a one night, two days trip to anmyeondo (or anmyeon island) to go see the beach since I hadn't done so in Korea in a while.

Located in south chungcheong province, the place is only a 2.5~3 hour drive from Seoul making it even doable as a day trip.

As I'd never been there before I was, as usual, quite eager to try some unique regional food there.

The place is along the ocean so naturally seafood is the center of culinary attention in the area. I was intrigued to find out about a special soup called gegukji (게국지) which is only found in the anmyeondo area. Unlike the typical kkotgetang (blue crab stew), gegukji is a soup made with fermented kimchi, prawns, mussels, crab and other specialties to give it a unique flavor. It first became widely known after being featured in an episode of the popular Korean variety show, "One Night, Two Days" (1박2일) and has since gained in notoriety but still draws blank faces and question marks from most Koreans.

Driving around the area, you'll see a number of restaurants advertising they serve gegukji but after reading up a bunch of favorable reviews, my friends and I decided to check out a famous and popular place called Heh Song Kkot Ge Jib (해송 꽃게집).

In addition to gegukji, the restaurant specialized in ganjang gejang which is fresh raw crabs that have been prepared in a soy sauce-based marinade. We opted for a special set which came with gegukji as well as the ganjang gejang.

With a few minutes, out came the full spread:

Ganjang Gejang (간장 게장)



Various side dishes, many of them seafood based

Growing up, I wasn't quite keen on seafood and ganjang gejang was one of those things so squeamish to me that I could probably count the number of times on one hand that I've actually tried it in my life. But I knew I had to try it one final time as an adult to give my final verdict on the dish and boy was I glad I did.

Many of those who aren't too fond of ganjang gejang have a wrong assumption that it's merely a salty and fishy tasting dish, which admittedly was my own incorrect perception of ganjang gejang until now too. My friends were just as relatively uneasy about the dish with one friend in my group even asking if it was worth ordering the ganjang gejang. But being the birthday boy, and with my hero Anthony Bourdain in mind, I responded that it indeed was worth trying and channeling my inner Bourdain, we put in an order for the combo set. 

In a few minutes, along with plastic disposable gloves and tools, two crabs came carefully split and divided and sitting on top a pool of the sweet and salty marinade, while its brightly colored innards gleaned and shined in the light. 

Equipped with my disposable plastic gloves, I picked up a leg and stared at it for a good minute, still feeling a bit uneasy about stuffing marinated raw crab bits into my mouth.

The action here with the legs and such is to bite and pull away as you suck to get out the bits inside while avoiding consuming the hard shell part. In true Anthony Bourdain-fashion I took my first bite at the same time with my friends and, I'm telling you, it was like a movie moment; collectively my friends and I saw our looks of apprehension and skepticism melt away within a few seconds of our first bite and slowly melt into faces of puzzled pleasure. So this was what ganjang gejang was all about.

The soy sauce-based marinade was sweet but with notes of other spices and fragrances but instead of acting as a mask for the crabby bits, it acted as a flavor enhancer. You could tell the crab was fresh, fresh, fresh with hints of the ocean but without any fishy taste. 

I was reminded of uni (sea abalone) which, when prepared fresh, is such a fantastic representative of the best of the sea. The texture was smooth and almost jelly like but with just enough chewiness in each bite to savor the deep flavor. 

The best part for Koreans is considered to be within the crab's main shell, with the crab's gooey innards and some of the roe sitting in a small pool of the marinade. Using the shell as a sort of dish, a spoon or two of hot rice is added and mixed with the crab parts to create a seasoned "crabby" rice. 

Crab goo and roe, waiting to be riced

All mixed up

At this restaurant, a small bowl with toasted seaweed strips, a few drops of sesame oil and sesame seeds were also provided on the side. In it, you could add a bit of rice and squeeze out some of the crabby parts and create another upgraded version of the crabby rice. 

First goes the rice into the prepared bowl, then squeeze out some crabby goodness

Mix it all up

Eat by the spoonful or wrap it up in some dried and toasted seaweed for extra goodness

They call gejang a "rice thief" dish (밥도둑) because it makes you want to eat more rice with the salty-sweet goodness and you can certainly understand why. Eaten alone, the dish can be a bit on the salty side but with warm and fresh rice, the two act in true complementary fashion to make both the rice and gejang taste even more enjoyable. 

Again, mixed up with the rice, there was no hints of fishiness of any sort. Just the sweet taste of the crab meat and the sauce. We all sat for a good few minutes in silence except for sounds of crunch and sucking as my friends and I savored the gejang. 

Also set on the table in a few minutes was the regional specialty, the gegukji. The red broth came boiling with crabs, prawns, mussels, green onions and ripened kimchi in it among other things. After letting it boil on the burner for a few minutes we poured the contents into bowls and sipped our first spoonful.

Unlike typical fish/crab stews, this one certainly had a unique taste to its broth. I thought it would simply taste like a mix between kimchi and crab stew but the flavors of all the ingredients came together to create a very mellow, smooth yet rich taste that even reminded some of us of seolleongtang (ox bone soup). The broth was still soup-like yet it held a richness and depth in its flavor that was more like that of a stew that had been boiling for hours.

Not quite salty, not quite sweet, not quite spicy either. It was a taste I've never exactly tasted in full before in any other Korean soup or stew. I'm quite good at usually being able to tell apart the separate ingredients that makes up a soup from the taste but this one I couldn't quite figure out. I'm thinking it had a little bit of everything including a bit of bean paste. 


Gegukji (게국지)

The full spread. Look at all those side dishes!

The soup was also brimming with plump and fresh seafood. The crab I ate was a rich one chock full of meat and eggs (it was crab season after all). The sweet meat had soaked up the rich broth creating a nice mix of flavors. Of course, picking apart the meat from the shell is always no fun but at least here you have plastic gloves so your hands don't get down and dirty! 

Plump little one she was.

We were unanimous though in saying that the ganjang gejang ended up being the star of the meal even over the gegukji. The gegukji was nice and unique and all but the ganjang gejang simply shone as everything that can go right for a dish- fresh, flavorful and seasoned just right to let the main ingredient/component (in this case, the crab) taste the best it can. 

My friend even commented to the waitress as we were paying and heading out that it was the first time he had ever ended up enjoying ganjang gejang in a meal (and this is someone that was born and raised in Korea his whole life). 

The restaurant is nothing fancy but it's pretty spacious and clean. The set we ordered was 60,000 (meant for 2-3 people) while you can also order other items (from prawns to mussels to stews and other seafood) individually.

I'm glad I was able to overcome my initial squeamishness with the crabs because ganjang gejang has already become one of my favorite and memorable Korean seafood dishes! 

It's easy to spend the rest of our life eating the same foods we're used to but suck it up and give it a try. Otherwise you'll never know what you're missing out on. 

Bonus picture:

At a rest stop along the way I spotted this unfortunate Engrish. Why yes, I would love a "buger" and french kiss....



Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Phone number: 041-673-5363

Address: Chungcheong namdo, Anmyeongeub, 757-42 Seung Un Ri

Parking: Available

Alcohol: Yes

Tip: If you're passing through and heading home, you can order their ganjang gejang to go and they'll put it in a special icebox and whatnot to guarantee its freshness and for it to not spoil. However, it's still pretty pricey. I think a kilo of it went for like 50 something thousand won. But damn if it's not good. 



Comments

  1. Can I ask permission to use some of your photos? Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bryan,

      I don't really mind but may I ask what you intend to use them for?

      Delete
    2. Hello Stewart,
      There's a contest here in our university of promoting local Korean food like "gejang". I would like to ask your permission to use your "ganjang gejang" photo for promotion purposes. Thank you!

      Delete

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