The hotel was in the remote southern part of the island, in the Jungmun resort complex. Since it was the off-season, virtually all the shopping areas, restaurants, and cafés in the complex were closed or under renovation. We sometimes had to go into an attraction or museum to eat at their restaurant. And even then, some of these places also had closed restaurants and cafes. We had to settle for canned coffee from a vending machine in the sculpture park. And succumbed to entering the Teddy Bear Museum because they had a Lotteria in there.
Big Pink Bags
On most days, we went to the town of Jungmun and ate at restaurants there, or brought food back to the hotel room. There was one large supermarket in town where we stocked up on lots of Korean teas, snacks, ginseng, and kim (nori in Japanese).
In Japan I’m constantly telling store clerks that I don’t need a bag, or to just give me one bag, instead of incessantly wrapping every individual item in separate bags. They mean well, but it’s unnecessary and annoying. So I was in mild shock when the clerk in the Korean store asked me if we wanted a bag, even though there was a small mountain of groceries and we clearly didn’t have a bag of our own.
Then I was mildly shocked again when the clerk just gave us one bright pink bag. Although it was much larger and sturdier than the flimsy ziploc-size bags that I’m given in Japan, it was clearly not enough for our groceries. I thought maybe the cashier was just inexperienced or stupid, but we had a similar interaction with another clerk on another day.
Now, I can’t get mad, because a) I get annoyed when the opposite happens, b) we should have brought our own bags, and c) the clerk had no attitude about it whatsoever; she just gave us a bag if we wanted it.
Searching for Deokbukki
Another interesting observation is that there was no ass-kissing from service workers, yet definitely no attitude. In Japan, there’s a lot of thanking and bowing, a lot of presenting and introducing of food and drinks, elaborate askings of permissions to pour me more water, a good deal of apologizing, etc. In all the Korean restaurants, the servers just wordlessly brought food, kept the glasses filled, and generally just kept track of the table without much fuss. Every now and then, the owner might come over and chit chat out of curiosity.
We were surprised to find that there were no Starbucks, McDonald’s, or any of the other familiar American chains that one finds in international resort areas. So much of the area was closed for the off-season that we eventually had to eat at the expensive hotel restaurant one night. But oh it was so tasty we went back our last night there.
When I went to Seoul a couple years back, I loved eating all the great affordable Korean food. It was great to dine in restaurants with generous servings, with panchan (all the complimentary little dishes that accompany Korean meals). At one restaurant they didn’t even charge me for the beer. Even when I pointed out that it wasn’t on the bill, the cashier just waved it off.
In contrast, in most Japanese restaurants, an alcoholic drink is served with a mandatory tiny serving of squid or whatever, that’ll run you an extra 3-5 bucks. And service, though very polite, is often inflexible. A two hour reservation must end by two hours, even if the restaurant is empty and there’s no one waiting, for instance. Don’t get me wrong. I think overall Tokyo has the best food in the world, with excellent service. But in Korean restaurants, there’s an easy-going, casual, generous spirit, that is rare in Japanese restaurants.
So of course I was licking my chops to eat basic Korean dishes like duk manduguk or deokbukki, or japchae. But we couldn’t find any restaurants that served these dishes. I understand that some of these dishes are considered street snacks, but it shouldn’t have been near impossible to find them. We eventually found, one food stand that sold deokbukki, odeng, and kimbap for about a dollar a roll. Tasty!
Most of the menus were on the walls. And there’s no English. Every restaurant we went into had dishes we’d never heard of. And since the dishes were all unfamiliar to me I had a perplexed expression on my face. Eventually the restaurant owner would ask me if I wanted recommendations. So I just asked them to serve whatever was popular. Invariably, it included the seafood jigae, a spicy stew.
The seafood jigae always had abalone, which is what the women divers of Jeju mostly harvest. Sometimes it was sparkled with a cilantro-like seasoning I’d never tasted before. Another local specialty was thinly sliced pork belly, which was really tasty. Sometimes it was steamed, sometimes grilled, and it came with a variety of pungent sauces. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Another tasty local specialty are the tangerines. They have a unique light sweetness that I’d never tasted before.
The kimchee was a bit sour for my tastes. Maybe I’m too accustomed to the sweeter varieties that are served in Japan or the US. At first, we thought they served us a less spicy watered down version for foreigners. So I asked them if there were any spicier kimchee for Koreans. And they said that was it. So that’s another local variation I suppose.
So when in Jeju, the pork belly is a must, the abalone is (pleasantly) unavoidable, the tangerines are refreshing, the kimchee is regrettable, and carrying your own shopping bags is recommended.