03 September 2012

The kongguksu that won me over

I've always thought Cicero's proverb "cibi condimentum esse famem" is pretty true, and when discussing the flavors and merits of a meal, I'm wont to comment that "hunger is the best sauce."  Hasn't it been your experience, too, that after eating a really big multi-course meal, whatever comes at the end of the meal has to be truly amazing to get glowing approval from your taste buds?  There have been only two instances in my life where the last dish stood out to the point that set me raving over it.  The first was a fried rice with uni sauce served after a huge dim sum meal at Koi Palace in Daly City several years ago, the second, which I want to tell you about today, was this 콩국수 (kongguksu) that I ate in Busan a few weeks ago.

The meal started gently and innocently enough at first, with a light dish of shredded raw skate and vegetables in gochujang sauce.  (The colors and flavors were beautiful, but texture-wise it was quite shocking how crunchy raw skate is!!)

What followed, then, was a feast of (g)astronomical proportions, including crispy-fried green mountain vegetable and tiny, crispy-fried crabs (just as tasty as popcorn!), various namuls (gosari, hobak, and kongnamul), abalone (전복) and other mollusks, fried slices of ojingeo soondae (오징어 순대, rice-stuffed squid)... 

...as well as gungjung ddeokbokki (궁중 떡볶이), kimchi dubu (김치 두부, pan-fried tofu with kimchi-pork stir fry), a couple of types of broiled fish, hongeo samhap (홍어삼합, a triumvirate of steamed pork, kimchi, and fermented skate), various fried "pancakes" (전), and several other dishes that I simply cannot remember now.

Not realizing how many courses this meal was going to be, I'd eaten well past the point of satiety (I couldn't not try everything that came out to the table!) by the time the second-to-last dish was presented.  And when I saw what it was, I thought no problem, I don't even like kongguksu anyway.  You see, I had had kongguksu before, thought I knew what kongguksu was like, and thought I could just politely taste this for show and then not bother with the rest of it.

But, after loosening the nest of noodles in the chilled soybean milk sauce, tightly twirling a few strands of noodles thickly coated with ground sesame powder and cucumber slivers around my chopsticks, and carefully transferring the bundle to my mouth, things changed.  This kongguksu was nothing like I'd experienced before.  I actually liked it!  No, I loved it!  I spooned up some of the thick, cold soybean broth made just moments before in-house.  With an amazing texture and nutty flavor from the bean and sesame combination, I could not help but finish the whole bowlful.  Forget that I'd already eaten a huge feast and this kongguksu was enough to be a meal on its own; it was that good.  I am officially now a fan.

Accompanying the kongguksu course was some of the best chonggak kimchi I've ever had...young white Korean radishes with their green tops on.  Crunchy, slightly sour from the fermentation, and fresh and spicy, the chonggak kimchi perfectly accompanied the creamy, soft and chewy noodles.

Yes, the kongguksu and chonggak kimchi combination was truly spectacular, standing out even after all those dishes that were served.

If you're ever in Busan and looking for a fantastic meal from start to finish, I recommend heading to 통나무 하우스 ("Tongnamu House," or literally "Log House"), at 210-11 Oncheon 1(il)-dong, Dongnae-gu, Busan, South Korea.