Traveling Korea: Sokcho

Here is an article written by Jacqueline of Something for Sunday. It is a beautifully written and photographed article about her weekend trip. This post has been reprinted with permission. If you would like your article featured on Seoul Eats, contact Daniel Gray at seouleats at gmail dot com

Whatever the sort of journeying you prefer, travel around South Korea is accessible and so rewarding. Every time I take even a day trip beyond Seoul’s city limits, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. If you aren’t the type to plan, travel groups are the way to go. My style of travel involves little research and a lot of flexibility. I like to show up and see what happens.

Midweek before a long weekend at the end of May, we decided to go away for certain. I unearthed an outdated Lonely Planet Guide left behind by a former teacher, pressed for time and eager to escape. I only wanted a quick description of a few spots we could reach by bus. The rest we’d find on our own.

We chose a destination closest to two of Korea’s most famous touristattractions on slightly false assumptions. I imagined a quaint fishing village on a desolate beach, though nowhere in LP did I read about such a place. Sokcho is a port city with a population close to 90,000, and during the summer, the beaches are packed with tourists. A lot of people visit Sokcho on their way to hike Seoraksan. Not us. We wanted catharsis from a different source. Say, the kind that requires as much exertion as a walk from our room to dinner.

We had 36 hours to spend. This is what we did ate.

We met at the East Seoul Bus Terminal on a cool and hazy morning, thirty minutes early, indifferent to the coastal rainy weather forecast. Something about a gritty, ugly bus station shouts, “Freedom!” with more audacity than an airport ever could. Our driver didn’t waste any time. We left at 9:30 sharp, and as he gunned it down the expressway, he made liberal use of his horn and wove around cars like a desperado in a high-speed chase. I leaned against the seat and swore under my breath, calling up images of foamy water, glassy oysters, weathered fishing boats, an illuminated lighthouse. No one else seemed bothered by our dear driver’s style, of course. What the hell, I thought. I slid out of my seatbelt and began to feel the rush of liberty that only a bus driving straight out of town can deliver.

As promised, we pulled into Sokcho’s bus station four hours later. Hungry, eager, and without a plan, we picked up a map from the station’s tourist office and chose the direction that would lead us to water. Red and blue tents lined the wall of the closest port. Ajumas chopped live squid with agility and served it raw. Men fished standing and cast the starfish aside that they pulled up from the end of their lines. Ecologically harmful, they grumbled when we asked why. People moved slower, used pay phones, and smiled outright. Cars didn’t honk. Cars yielded. To pedestrians, it should be noted. This was no village, but the vibe here was distinctly different.

We were hungry, but raw squid on an empty stomach wasn’t going to cut it, so we walked back in the direction we’d come to a restaurant on the corner of a noisy intersection. A chalkboard menu promised makgeolli and pajeon, classic Korean fare on a rainy day. It wasn’t raining yet, but the clouds looked filled to the brim. Two men were sitting inside, and one of them was wearing an apron. Bingo.

The potato pancakes had crackling edges, tender centers, and a hot pepper dipping sauce red as blood and weighted with pepper flakes. They weren’t heavy like a lot of potato pancakes can be, and we took small bites in a desperate attempt to make them last longer. The makgeolli was cold and smooth and just astringent enough.

Then something happened that’s never happened before. The owner saw me writing, which I do often enough when I’m out, but I never get any attention for it, and this is usually the point. When he found out I was writing about his food, he went straight back to the kitchen without another word. Soon after, he emerged with a plate of cooked snails and vegetables dressed liberally with a cold but incendiary sauce called golbaengi muchim, a popular plate to share while drinking beer or sojuHe was proud of his recipe, and for good reason. Canned snails are usually used inland, but he had the luxury and proximity of using fresh. To be sure, fresh snail is the ticket. The sweet, sour, fiery sauce set my mouth aflame, but I wouldn’t stop eating. It was deliciously addictive, and if he was gracious enough to give us a plate of food on the house, the least we could do was to lick it clean. I’ve got a soft spot for independent restaurants like his, especially when it’s evident that the owner cares deeply about the food he or she serves. If it were closer, I’d try to convince Kathryn to make it a part of our ritual. He gave us more than enough, and he probably would have spent the whole afternoon suggesting places to go and things to see had we asked. But we didn’t. We wanted more spontaneous meals, even if they weren’t as good as this.

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