Musings: My Eats in Tongyeong 2013 (통영 식신로드)

Long story short- had some business to attend to a few months ago, all the way down south in Masan and, seeing as how Masan isn't really known for much other than factories and braised monkfish (아귀찜), decided to explore Tongyeong (통영) with some other friends for an impromptu 1 night, 2 days whirlwind tour.

Tongyeong is a historic port town on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula and probably most famous for being the old headquarter base of the national hero, Admiral Lee Soon Shin of the Imjin Wars. The town was actually called Choongmu (충무) before it became its current name today.

It's a mostly sleepy and coastal town and located almost right smack in the middle of the southern coast. This proximity gives it an advantage of being close to both the West, East, and the South Sea, and therefore its seafood is some of the freshest and inexpensive you can get in Korea. Seriously, we were walking around the fish market and they were selling two to three huge fishes for sashimi, and all the fixings, for some 20,000 won. Unbelievable.

Tongyeong is nicknamed the "Naples of Korea", which is a bit of a stretch but I could see where this association came from while walking along the coastal bay at sunset.

All the neat and pretty spots for sightseeing will go up on my personal FB later but here's all the eats I had down south!

We road tripped it down south via car with the estimated time to be some 5 hours. Time went by surprisingly fast, however, with rest area stops along the way and driver switches.

Feeling a bit peckish, at one rest stop we picked up a bag of hodoo gwaja (호두과자). These little sweet cakes have sweet red bean paste and walnuts in them and are found in specialty stores, food carts, and in rest stops. I'm actually not a big fan of these but having a few of them with some warm coffee in the winter days really does hit the spot!

Wherever you buy them from, the outside shapes of these cookies are always the same but the difference lies in their filling. The cheapskate makers will use less filling, which leads to the consumer biting into a pocket of air and just a little smear of the sweet bean paste (and sometimes not even a walnut inside!)

But when done right, they'll be filled to the brim and with a nice big piece of walnut embedded inside to give you a pleasant and nutty flavor to the sweet mix.

We finally arrived in Tongyeong and spent most of the afternoon checking out some of the tour spots including the Dongpirang art wall village, local parks, the bay, fish market and such. We were quite conflicted as to whether we should go with a hweh (sashimi) feast or an oyster feast for dinner. But seeing as how Tongyeon is most famous for its oysters (some 70% of Korea's oyster haul in all comes from Tongyeong) and how we just so happened to be in the town during its prime oyster season, we decided to go for the shellfish.

I want shellfish. Now!

Our restaurant of choice for the evening was a very famous place called Dae Poong Gwan (대풍관) right by the main harbor. The place is famous for being featured a few years back in the popular variety program, "1 Night, 2 Days" (1박2일). Thinking we could beat the infamous lines by going at an off dinner hour at 5 PM, we were surprised to find the restaurant remains completely closed from the end of their lunch hour until dinner time at 6 PM. Their dinner time system works by having people come and sign up for a spot on their list. When it becomes 6 PM the usher will bring in people, by their number, to an open table and when all the tables are full the patrons are given a table, in order of their number on the list, when a table opens up.

We came back around 6 PM and waited only about 3 or so minutes before we were led to our table. The oyster course menus are the most popular choice here which begins at 13,000 won per person, then 17,000, and 22,000 for the biggest course but you can also order dishes ala carte. The dishes offered here are almost entirely all involving oysters including grilled oysters, fresh shucked oysters, battered and fried oysters, oyster jeon, oyster soup, oyster stew, and more.

We went with the most basic C course which includes the seasoned raw oysters (굴무침), oyster jeon (굴전), oyster rice (굴밥), and the mixed seafood dwenjang stew (해물된장찌개). As you can see, the basic set includes a lot of food already and so to this we added an order of the fresh, shucked oysters (생굴회)- which sets you back a mere 10,000 won.

Those who order the course sets can also switch the included oyster rice for manila clam rice, or bajirak bap (바지락밥) for free so some of us went with the oyster rice and others went with the manila clam rice. This switching option for the rice isn't stated by servers and the words are written in small font on the menu so keep this little tip in mind!

It was clearly evident Dae Poong Gwan was a popular restaurant not only by the hustle and bustle of the entire place but because they had their order and food delivery down to a systematic T. As soon as you flag down someone to take your order, they'll jot down your order on your "tablecloth" butcher paper. Within a minute or two, another person will march out and lay out the side dishes in lightning speed. This process repeats with the rest of your course menu throughout your meal. Despite how busy they were, I appreciated the fact the servers were all courteous and ready to fully answer any questions.

The side dishes were basic but delicious with a mix of veggies, seafood, and kimchi-based banchan. 

Now, the real shocker and irony in all of this is the fact that it wasn't until last year that I actually allowed oysters to enter my lips. I've mentioned before that I wasn't a big seafood eater growing up but I've slowly been breaking into this long neglected area of cuisine in the last few years and my taste buds finally evolved to the point I could eat the likes of clams and oysters last year... and even at that I had only one real oyster eating experience before this meal.

So understandably I was a bit worried on how I would be with this meal of endless oyster dishes but these concerns were unfounded as soon as I dug into my first oyster dish of the meal- oysters cooked in a sweet and savory soy sauce-based broth. This was actually one of the side dishes offered at this joint which just goes to show you how plentiful oysters are in this town that they offer it free in the form of side dishes.

In any case, the sauce had an almost teriyaki sauce-like taste to it which was oh so delicious with the oysters that had been cooked to perfection. No smell and no dried out texture, this was just oyster meat that had soaked up the sauce but without making it salty. By then, I was more than ready to take on the next few dishes!

The seafood dwenjang stew was one of the early arrivals on the table so that it could heat up and boil away in time to be eaten with the rest of the meal. On first glance, the stew looked a little lacking for having the word "seafood" in it. That proved to be without grounds once we dug into the stew as plenty of clams, crab, oysters, and more were all hiding at the bottom of the pot. The stew was surprisingly spicy for how it looked but thoroughly enjoyed by us during the meal.

The fresh shucked oysters came next and were a sight to behold. Piles of the oysters, shucked just moments ago from their shells, sat on a plate with only a bit of fresh seaweed and lemon slices on the side. Shimmering and glossy, this was, by far, the freshest oysters I'd seen. With just a spritz of the lemon slices and a dab of the chogochujang (sweet and tart red pepper paste), I overcame  my fears and had my first oyster.

I was ready (bracing really) for a wave of briny, fishy taste to come on my first chew but I carefully chewed and chewed some more. Soon I was happily chewing and relishing in my eating. Koreans call oysters the "milk of the sea", and I finally understood for the first time what they meant. There's a smooth, almost subtle "creamy" flavor to a really good oyster that breaks through any scents from the ocean and goes down beautifully. I'm sensitive to fishy smells and scents but none were found in these fresh oysters whatsoever. I wasn't the only one in the group inexperienced with oysters but we were unanimous in our thumbs up for Tongyeong's prized mollusks.

The spicy seasoned oysters may seem just about the same as the fresh shucked oysters. After all, the seasoning is still based on the chogochujang sauce but the seasoned oysters benefit from the addition of crunchy textures from the onion and carrot slices and flavors from the fragrant water parsley (or minari 미나리) and sesame oil and seeds. Fresh shucked oysters are, of course, the main center of attraction on its own and remains so in the seasoned oyster dish but is joined by an ensemble of flavors and textures to give the oysters a more flavorful addition to the mix. It's fresh oysters with some very fine Korean flavors to them.

Our individual bowls of rice were pretty large considering how much food we had already consumed. The bajirak rice comes with a heaping of seasoned vegetables, toasted seaweed, cooked and chopped manila clams sitting on top white rice. Just give it a mix and you have a medley of veggies, clams, rice, and other goodies that packs a big and tasty wallop in your mouth.

The gulbap (oyster rice) isn't as flashy in its looks but still keeps up in flavor. A mixed rice is used for this dish and has the oysters cooked with the rice so the rice also soaks up some of the oyster properties. Just a bit of veggies are inside and the whole dish is dressed simply with some toasted seaweed crumbles. There's a seasoned soy sauce dressing offered on the side allowing patrons to mix it in to their liking.

I sample both but slightly preferred the bajirak rice more only in that the manila clams offered a bit of a break from the oyster feasting. But the gulbap was still delicious on its own and perhaps more mass friendly for its non-spicy taste.

Last but not least was the gul jeon brought out fresh and hot from the pan. By this time, we were all really stuffed and with many of us not really enjoying cooked oysters, we thought this last dish would be average at most. But man, were we wrong again.

The consistency of the breading for the jeon is at just the right spot where it's not too thin but not getting to cake-like levels. Pillowy soft and hot, these jeons were very fragrant and seasoned just right that I didn't even need the accompanying dipping sauce. The oysters were plenty in each jeon piece and damn delicious again. The experience was amplified by the fact these jeons had been fried to order and not served cold after sitting out for a while. It really was one of the best dishes of the course.

Suffice it to say we were not only stuffed at the end of our meal but oyster-ed out. While none of the dishes were ever even the slightest bit seafoody or heavy, I was slightly queasy that night but probably so because my stomach wasn't used to eating so much oysters in one sitting.

But it's an excellent spot for oyster lovers and just as great for oyster newbies to get a nice, fresh, and pleasant breaking into the shelled guys.

If you want to save yourself even more money on oysters though and don't mind doing some prepping, just walk around the fish market nearby and pick out a box from the many vendors there. It's the freshest you can buy apart from going out on a boat yourself and when I went 1 kilogram was going for only about 10,000. If you tell them you're going to be carting it off to another city that day, the vendors will ice them in a airtight styrofoam box for you. Just make sure you eat it within the same day, perhaps up to the next day so long as it's packaged and chilled if you want to stretch it.

But if you're lazy and want it prepped for you, the name and contact info of the place is provided below:

Dae Poong Gwan (대풍관)
경상남도 통영시 동호동 174-1
174-1 Gyeongsangnam-do, Tongyeong, Dongho-dong
Phone number: 055-644-4446

Just as famous of a dish from Tongyeong is a simple meal called Chungmu kimbap (remember I said earlier in the post Tongyeong was once known as Chungmu?) The story goes that the fishermen of the town would go out to sea with their packed kimbap only to find it get soggy and even spoiled from the long time and high temperatures out on sea. So one housewife got the idea to take out all the filling from the kimbap and roll out simple rice and laver rolls. To this, radish kimchi (moo kimchi 무김치) and seasoned, fermented squid (kkolddoogi muchim 꼴뚜기무침) were provided on the side. No sogginess and no spoiling!

Since then the dish has spread in popularity throughout Korea but it's most famous in its birth town and just along the main harbor you will see shop after shop of joints selling chungmu kimbap- many of them claiming to be the true originator of the dish.

The plan was actually to sample a bit of the chungmu kimbap after our oyster feast meal but our eyes were bigger than our stomach as none of us had any room whatsoever to eat another bite. Seeing as how we had to be on the move to Masan early in the morning though, we grabbed an order to go and put it in our hotel room's fridge to enjoy the next day.

Uniquely this dish is meant to be eaten by skewering with toothpicks- take a bite of a roll, a bite of the radish kimchi and some of the seasoned squid.

It sure isn't the most aesthetically appealing thing but I was quite pleasantly surprised by the taste. The chungmu kimbap I've tried before in Seoul was too sweetened for my taste. There's a depth to the seasoning in the squid here though that's really quite addicting and complex. Perhaps its the larger chunks of red pepper flakes, a special method of preparing the squid, or even some sort of MSG but it was pungently good. I've heard that some places even slightly ferment the squid when preparing and maybe that's what made the taste so much richer. I must say though, both the squid and radish kimchi gives off a powerful kimchi-like smell. Every time someone opened our room fridge to grab a drink it was woooooooooosh- an envelope of kimchi eau de parfum in the air. Stinks aside, I'm still craving this dish now while looking at the pictures!

Last but not least to make up the trio of famous Tongyeong foods is something that's actually not seafood oriented or based. Rather, it's a sweet pastry dessertcalled kkoolbbang (honey bread or 꿀빵) and, just like the chungmu kimbap, you'll find numerous stores and stalls hawking these pastry balls in Tongyeong.

It's a simple dessert really. Just a ball of sweet red bean paste that's covered in dough, deep fried, covered in honey syrup and then given a scattering of sesame seeds on top.

Old school donuts from the neighborhood streets is how my friends described the fried pastry taste and I'd have to agree. I'm not a fan of those kind of style donuts to begin with and the addition of the sweetened red bean paste inside only made the whole thing taste even sweeter. I'm glad I had coffee on me to help offset the sugar levels but just alone I probably wouldn't have finished one whole kkoolbbang.

After heading over to Masan and taking care of business, had time for lunch before having to head back up to Seoul. 

Masan port!

Masan is most famous for its agwi jjim (spicy braised monk fish) but none of us were really craving it, not to mention it's a bit pricey. One of us made a call to a friend whose hometown is Masan to get an insider scoop on what was good to eat there but that friend simply told us, "Masan isn't known for food. Just head to another city if you want good food." 

Hmm.. not very helpful. But after being out in the cold for over an hour, none of us were keen on waiting too long to get some grub in our bellies so I did a quick search and came across a trending chain of eateries in Masan called Jibshin Maeun Galbi Jjim (짚신 매운갈비찜), known for their spicy braised ribs. 

Jibshin, or Zipshin, seems to be a local hotspot in the Masan vicinity these days as it's dominating the search results when you look up places to eat in Masan. Despite its southern origins, its spread to most of the major cities of Korea now I hear.

We went to the one in Hapseongdong, in downtown Masan. You know it's the right place because it has a giant old school Joseon straw sandal on its front wall. Jibsin specializes in spicy braised ribs which you can order in either pork or beef. Whichever you order, the ribs come swimming in a spicy sweet sauce along with veggies. The pork ribs is 9,500 won per person while beef ribs go for 14,000 but the great thing about this place is that they do a special lunch set that goes on until 3PM on weekdays. For 19,000 won you get 2 servings of the pork ribs, 2 bowls of rice and an order of their gyeran jjim. Alternatively, you can swap the pork ribs for beef (with all the same fixings) for 27,000 won. I think some of the other branches now include the sugary Coolpis drink in the deal too but it wasn't the case for the branch we visited in Masan. 

Just a few sides are on the menu as add-ons to whichever ribs you choose. These include a non-spicy, white soondubu (3,000 won), gyeran jjim (also known as steamed eggs for 3,000 won), rice balls (3,000 won) and pepper mandu (half plate is 3,000 and full plate is 6,000). 

Whether you choose beef or pork for your ribs, you have the option of asking how spicy you want the sauce to be. The regular spicy level begins at 20% but you can order it as high as 100%. As reference, the 70% level is described as twice the heat of the fiery, beloved-by-Koreans, chungryang pepper (청량고추). 

Instead of regular water, they offer hutgeh tea (oriental raisin or 헛개) for free here which Koreans claim to be beneficial to the liver and good especially after drinking alcohol. 

The pork ribs come with veggies and a few rice cakes in the spicy broth. To eat, you turn on the burner and then throw in the soybean sprouts on top. The server will come around to mix it up and cut up the meat from the bones for you but the meat comes already cooked so you don't have to wait long.

At first glance, I wasn't very visually impressed and the broth looked quite watered down. However this was one of those dishes where it seemed to get better the more it cooked in its own juices. The broth became thicker, the meat and veggies soaked up the spicy sauce more and all the ingredients in general just came together as time went on.

Not too salty or sweet, the sauce was pretty spicy but without overpowering the meat. It was good on its own but I especially enjoyed eating it in wraps with the lettuce provided.

Even for me the sauce had a pretty spicy kick which was perfectly offset by the included fluffy gyeran jjim.

While two bowls of rice is normally included in the lunch set, we opted to skip it and pay just a bit more to have rice stir fried with the leftovers. Our server scooped out most of the sauce for the fried rice but I found it rather bland and scooped more of the sauce back on top of the rice while eating. 

Bam. Perfect.

Lord knows the leftover fried rice after these jjim/stew dishes are one of my major weaknesses and this was certainly no exception. Definitely killed it.

It wasn't the best ribs I've ever had but for the price and service (and especially the lunch deal) it's a fine place to get your spicy pork ribs done Korean style. There's branches in Seoul too now so Seoulites can get a taste of them in places like Hongdae, Myeongdong, Nonhyeon, etc.

After this meal, it was a scramble back up to Seoul to beat the traffic. But for such a short trip down south, it was a very quick and fine exploration of some of the south's flavors and dishes!

See you soon, Tongyeong!