Seoul Eats: Eel in the City
Seoul Eats: Eel in the City
By Daniel Gray
Freshwater eel is a summertime specialty. Slowly grilled, the flesh has a marbled quality like a fine rib eye steak, a silky texture that resembles lobster. It melts in your mouth seasoned only with salt, but when lathered with a soy glaze the smell simply wafts up to your hypothalamus and makes itself a permanent fixture.
While I was making my excursion to “Jangeorang” in Hongdae, trying to convince my expatriate friends to come join me for grilled eel and soy marinated crab was like trying to pick all the red pepper flakes out of kimchi. When I approached my Korean friends, it was the complete opposite reaction. One of my friends even canceled a date in order to have a meal of eel. This differing reaction made me wonder. Why do some people have a prejudice against eel?
I guess some people associate it with evil because it looks like a snake or maybe it’s the name: eel. It sounds like a murmur of disgust rather than the name of an epicurean enchantment. I prefer the Korean name for it: Jangeo (장어) which is pronounced jang-oh. It sounds like the chime of a dinner bell to me.
Walking to Jangeorang with my compatriots, my friend Sosun told me that Korean men hold jangeo in high esteem. The scorching, humid summer days tend to sap energy and leave them (and all people) in a general droll. This is unacceptable for the Korean male who needs the stamina to work 12-hour days and then party all night. She told me that Korean men feel that jangeo is their Viagra. It’s what gives them their get and go-the ability to please the ladies. I don’t know about all that, but the myth is definitely… interesting.
Jangeorang is located in the artsy Hongdae area- away from the clubs and the late night madness. It looks like any other restaurant from the outside. As soon as you open the door, a winding staircase greets you and, strangely, a Disney decorated play area. The colorful Disney playroom definitely seems out of place in the otherwise clean aesthetics of the restaurant. There is a purpose for the playground (which I’ll explain later). And as you climb up the stairs you’ll notice the myriad of celebrity pictures and autographs on the wall. Everyone from politicians, singers, models and movie stars (the beautiful Kim Ah Joong from “200 Pound Beauty”) has been here. Upstairs is a spacious dining room. And if you are against sitting Indian style on the floor, some tables have the floor cut away so your legs can hang comfortably.
The menu is eel centric. You can get grilled eel basted with their special soy sauce, a chili barbecue sauce, or simply with salt. This is a place to eat with a group; you can order eel for two to 10 people. After you order, you’ll have a little bit of a wait. An expert grill master prepares the eel before it arrives at your table. This takes about 25 minutes. (That’s why they have a playroom for children.) If you have kids, let them romp around downstairs and have an appetizer of crabs marinated in soy sauce.
What I have learned in Korea is that everything tastes better when it is fermented. Take for example: wheat (beer), milk (cheese and yogurt), potatoes (vodka), grapes (wine), cabbage (kimchi), and especially crabs. Yes, you heard me correctly. Crabs taste better when they are fermented. Soy sauce, which in itself is a miracle of culinary science is used to temper these crabs and infuse each morsel of meat with goodness. The crabs take on a creamy, mellow property; it tastes like a fine foie gras pate. These crabs have tang and zip, and since the crabs are already cut- it is easy to suck out the meat. After this experience, I promise that you won’t go back to hastily steamed crabs served on newspaper and plastered with “Old Bay” seasoning.
You can also snack on the panchan (파찬: side dishes) while you wait. One panchan, the jangeo bone chips are…crunchy. The spines of the jangeo are seasoned and fried. These are not my favorite and I would prefer the “Minmul-saewoo Ggot-gaetang” (민물새우 꽃게탕): a crab/seafood bouillabaisse. And I was definitely intrigued by the “Mozzarella Cheese Eel.” Melted cheese and jangeo sounds like a perfect match in theory. I’ll have to see if it is also true in practice. If none of those appetizers interest you, conversation is also a good way to sate the appetite, so have a glass of raspberry wine: bokbun-ja (복분자).
My friend Sosun, started to laugh when the bottle of bokbun-ja (복분자) came to the table. We thought she had gone mad, but she was laughing about the origin of the name. 복 (bok)=overturn 분자(bun-ja)=chamber pot. Overturn Chamber Pot? Chamber Pot? Urinal??? This again goes back to the Korean male belief that certain foods and drink are like Viagra: they enhance their stamina. They also believed that bokbun-ja would enhance their male personage and empower them to overturn their urinal simply with the force of their…pee.
When the Jangeo arrives at the table, it looks like an elaborate game of dominos. Each piece is perfectly cut and glazed. We ended up getting the soy sauce and the chili barbecue eel. The waitress places it on a grill at the center of the table. Keeping the jangeo warm maintains the flavor of the jangeo and each piece tastes better and better the longer it stays.
Each morsel of jangeo should be savored. Gorging would be sensory overload. It is especially good with the slivered pieces of fresh ginger and gaengnip (깻닢). There is also garlic, pickled radish leaf, salt, and other condiments to dress the meat. My compatriots preferred the soy sauce jangeo to its chili barbeque counterpart, but over time I felt the chili paste had a more satisfying flavor.
The eel was so fresh and well cooked that it truly felt like it evaporated in the mouth. It’s all about texture and the smell is quite alluring. The meat is so delicate that it seems to hover above the tongue and below the roof of the mouth. I find it best to leave the meat on my tongue and let it slowly melt away. A sliver of ginger will open up your taste buds even further and the gaennip with its symphonic flavors of apple, licorice, and basil paint away the dastardly images of snakes and evil that are associated with eel.
To finish off the meal, we had purple rice steamed with sweet potato, nuts, and Korean dried berries. It was a satisfying way to end this epicurean evening. After our last bite we all sat in wonder and we left satiated.
Don’t simply take my word for it. Go for yourself. It is located at Hongik University. Go out exit 5 and make a left and then take the second right. Walk to the main road and take a left and walk up the main intersection where you’ll see the main entrance to Hongdae University. Take a left and walk until you reach the Samjin building and it is right across the street.
1&2F, Samuk Bldg., 6-137, Changjeon-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
Food Style: Korean Seafood
Language: English Menus
Lunch Prices: 10-15,000 won per person
Dinner Prices: 15-30,000 won per person
Hours: Open from 10am-11pm everyday
Reservations recommend for large groups
Parking is available