Tuesday, October 21, 2008

South Korea Part One: Jeju-Do

"Anyong Haseyo!"
Our guide beams enthusiastically as we stumble into Gimpo airport, Jeju-Do, after a 10 hour trip from Singapore. I was tired, grumpy and in desperate need of a toothbrush and did my best to work up a polite smile.
But all was forgotten as we drove along the coastline of Jeju-do. This is one beautiful island and probably the reason why it has played the backdrop to many a Korean films that have proven all the rage in Asia in recent years.
Being the only self governing province in South Korea, Jeju-do relies heavily on tourism and the abundant seafood it is blessed with as its main exports. In particular, the island is well known for its abalone that is featured in many dishes that are native to the island. The locals are also fiercely proud of their heritage - a really cool example is a group of women divers, the Haenyo, who dive regularly in very deep and often harsh conditions for shellfish, despite most of them being in their 70s (some even older). Their passion for the sea is inspiring and made me appreciate the seafood that I had on the island all the more.

Two food highlights for me while I was on Jeju-do, not surprisingly, featured abalone. The first was abalone stewed rice porridge. Deceptively simple (and not particularly photogenic), this very light tasting porridge is heartwarming and features chunks of very tender abalone pieces.
The second was an out of this world Sam Gae Tang (Korean ginseng chicken soup). A small free range chicken stuffed with glutinous rice, dates and korean ginseng simmered for hours in a very tasty broth. The Jeju-do version includes whole abalone pieces which are again extremely fresh and tender to the bite. I love how this is a one bowl meal with your meat, seafood, rice and soup all harmoniously combined in an earthenware pot.

I have always believed that food acts as a mirror for the people that create it. In Jeju-do, the simple, down to earth food does exactly that for the warm and hospitable locals who are so very proud of their produce and heritage. I think it is for this reason and everything that is this beautiful island that will keep people coming back for more.


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