Winter has never come up in a conversation about “the best seasons to travel in,” but as of late, I have been doing a lot of winter traveling. I guess most people shy away from the idea of walking around a new place, outside, in the bitter cold, hoping that the circulation continues to flow to all extremities. I would normally shy away too, but Korea has so much to explore – both gastronomically and historically – that it’s hard to pass up a weekend without getting out somewhere. That somewhere could be a museum in the hustle and bustle of the city, or a small town in the mountains boasting a delicious culinary feast. Normally, as you’d guess, I opt for the food frenzy.
Let’s jump back in time – about a month or so. If you concentrate hard enough, you can see me and my friend sitting at a table in a coffee shop, warming our insides as snow starts to drift from sky to macadam outside. It’s about five in the afternoon and getting dark too soon. My frothy latte is almost finished, and a crumbly biscotti sent from the states is sitting on a Tupperware container within reach.
“January is going to be a hectic month. We have new years, then a free weekend, followed by Andong and Bing-Aw –”
“—Then I fly to Thailand. Yeah. It’s going to be packed.”
We hummed and hawed over dates and which weekend should be which trip and I wrote furiously in my journal to make sure everything fit.
And it has. Jogging forward in time, I’m sitting here to say that the month went exactly as chaotically planned. Two weeks ago a traveling team of four met before day break at a bus station on the east side of Seoul to journey three hours south into the bitter winds and steaming plates of Andong.
Now, despite Andong’s south-of-Seoul location, this place was absolutely freezing. I hate to start a description of a place out like that, but the temperature was a central topic of conversation. Either “My god it’s cold” or “I think I lost feeling in my feet” or “I can’t be outside any longer, get me inside and say my name” or “If I so much as touched that water, I might die.” We talked about other things, too, but we all know that people bond best over struggling through something (see: school, work, you catch my drift).
We didn’t let the cold defeat us, though. Actually, if I had to say who won – the cold or us – I would say we did. Yes, the moment we hopped off the bus into a place that we had no idea about, we wanted to jump right back on because the wind stripped our warmth straight away. And yes, we stayed in a bakery for a little too long because we didn’t want to feel that bite quiet yet. And yes, as we walked through the central market all we thought about was slipping into a boiling pot of water fit for a feast of soup. And yes, we completely lost our judgment at one point and hailed a cab to take us almost twenty kilometers. And, finally, yes, we huddled unabashedly around a heater that was in the lobby of a museum we entered for the sole purpose of gathering around that very heater. But I wouldn’t say that it was a fail, more of a reappropriation of the concept of “traveling” and “seeing the sights.”
I call it a reappropriation because through our desire to escape the cold, we were taken all over. That cab I talked about, ended up taking us to both a large stone carved Buddha, and a Buddhist temple in the “heart of the mountain.” Would we have found this Cardiac-Zen jewel if we had keep to our feet? Never.
After we walked around this miniature frozen paradise in the mountains, and had seen the oldest wooden structure in Korean, and my fingers refused to cooperate in zipping up my jacket, we made our bussed-way back to the center of town.
We wouldn’t be defeated yet. We had more to see. I never thought about how much of traveling happens outside. Sure there are the restaurants and museums and bars to see, but if you want to see a place, a lot of the character is in the physical geography of the region. The next few hours were filled with running in place to stay warm while moving from Buddhist temple in the center of town, to a dam and a traditional village. If I’m not mistaken it was in the traditional village that I finally lost my mind to the winter chill as I started to scream out “Back it up! Back it up!” as I walked backwards down a hill to hide my nose from the typhoon gusts (if you’ll grant me that analogy).
Quickly after, we called yet another cab (I’d like to note, that we normally I don’t take cabs ever. There is always time to walk or bike or subway. But dire times call for extreme measures). We had enjoyed our touristy day in the bitter cold, but it had come to a visual end. We were now in it for the culinary experience.
See the real reason we traveled three hours south was not for the sights. They were merely good additional side dishes. We really went there for three reasons: the jjimdak, Andong soju, and the ceremonial feast. Short and simply: the food.
Every city of note in Korea has a specialty food. Jeonju was bibimbap. Busan is fish. Andong is jjimdak. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to know exactly what that Romanized-translation of Korean – jjimdak is a chicken(dak) dish that is swimming in a reduced-thick-sweet soy sauce accompanied by carrots, green onions and potatoes. All over Korea, this dish is a highlight on any menu, but in Andong itself, whole restaurants are dedicated to this dish. And by dedicated I mean the options are: jjimdak, fried jjimdak, and beverages. That’s either blind faith in the dish, or pure genius.
In Andong, it is pure genius. This dish comes in orders big enough for five people. It is a whole chicken cook up in that thick sauce, served with a side of rice and some gakdugi (pickled radish).
Almost without need of mention, six of us plowed through one order in less than ten minutes. I think most of us went into “food blackout.” That is, you loose all memory capacity during the meal, and as you come to, you realize all of the food has vanished and you start to accuse others of eating your portion. What’s sick and sad, is that you ate the whole plate without notice. Food blackout might have hit because our bodies were craving energy to warm us back up, or because the flavors danced so eloquently and brashly on our palates that we thought about them and only them.
The dish was a bold fight between Minnesota stew and Korean Tradition, leaving a loud combination of a rich and savory foundation with hints and notes of sugary heat, fresh vegetables, and supple chicken. The vegetables themselves were sparse, but played an enormous role in the dish on the whole. These Minnesotan ingredients sat atop glass noodles which sopped up the sauce and twirled nicely on the end of our chopsticks. If I had my way, I would have picked up the plate, and licked it clean, but I decided that might get a little messy, seeing as we were sitting on the floor.
The food wasn’t the only food and drink of note at this market-hidden restaurant. The drink. Oh the drink.
Korea, known for many foods, is also known for its drink of choice: the rice wine named soju. Most stores (see: convenience stores) the soju that’s for sale is chemically filled, harsh, and weak sauce. But for a dollar a bottle, it’s hard to say no on a Friday night as you walk to your first bar of the night (remember folks, I am still a 20something…). That isn’t the soju that Koreans from years past drank or might have hoped made it to other countries. Rather, the soju that is still traditionally distilled in Andong is the good stuff. The stuff that’s clear, expensive, thick, and distinctively flavored is where it’s at. Smelling of moonshine, this drink’s main draw was the cleanliness. Taste with me: Shoot. Flavor. Strength (like a good shot of vodka). Burn. Clean finish. No recoil. All in all, I’d come back for more. And we did.
We had a bottle (or three) via shot glasses over the jjimdak and felt as Korean as can be. The trip had already fulfilled every hope and planned activity, but this was merely the end of day one.