"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Monday, October 4, 2010

Soy Milk Noodle (Kongguksu), September 11, 2010

After five weeks in China, my body was yearning for something healthy. Under normal circumstances, kongguksu would not have got a second glance from me; as a matter of fact, it did not get one of the multi-colored flags, which I used to mark the "must-eats" in my Seoul guidebook. However, as I reviewed my plan of attack on the capital of Korea, I found myself re-reading the description of this curious kongguksu. According to my guidebook, the soup was made of soy milk - no meat, fish or vegetables, while the noodle itself was made of whatever kind of flour with, what else, some soy powder - a sheer nightmare for anyone allergic to soy.  Hm...why would anyone want to consume so much soy? I guess it is good for menopause. Is this a preparation for some doomsday scenario where the only edible product left on earth will be soy?  Imagine, rice in rice milk, cheese in yogurt, goat cheese in goat milk... OK, OK, I am stretching it because the noodles are not made solely from soy, but surely you can understand;  the word, "redundant," does not have any positive meaning, does it? Mystery has its appeal:  Ever fallen for that mysterious someone because you just cannot figure out that person?  Fine, I would give it a try.
Thus, I started walking toward this restaurant near the parliament on a rainy morning with a hungry stomach (definitely not a good combination for my mood). After 30 minutes and a bit of confusion (because, for once, I cannot read the street signs), I finally found the place on top of a hill.
Although I cannot read a word of Korean, there is no chance of mistake, is there?  The pictures of the dishes were prominently displayed (along with the garbage), and to just nail it in, a dignified picture of black and white of the founder (probably) more suitable for an alter proudly beckoning the uninitiated and the regular alike.

Walking inside at 10:45AM (the restaurant opens at 10:30AM), I was the first customer to have kongguksu to start the day. The ajuma (a middle-aged Korean woman with kids) there, having seen enough tourists with the meek smile for the lack of better communication tools, knew exactly what I was looking for: "Kongguksu?" She asked. Picking capable to oversee the movements in the kitchen and the entrance, I settled into wait for this mysterious kongguksu to arrive. Soon the first target of my observation walked into the restaurant - a young woman, who came in to purchase their home-made soy milk in a plastic 1.5 litter bottle.  She was followed by a middle-aged man, also purchasing the soy milk. Well, at least the soy milk had some dedicated fans (at least I do not frequent the government area on my free will on a Saturday, or any day for that matter), I thought.

By the time I started to get bored from watching the wet drops on the grill pan (their dish cloth was pretty wet), a silver wash basin arrived. I must tell you that having traveled to so many parts of the world and having devoured pretty much all forms of culinary arts and wizardry, there are few that will shock me into a mute bewilderment.  However, how does one's mind grasp a gigantic wash basin filled with thick, creamy, yellowish matter with strands of darker shade of yellow as food, when, in fact, the concoction might be more aptly described as DNA strands floating in a primordial soup? 
Momentarily lost in a stupor, I recovered myself and gingerly and cautiously took a sip of this thick soy soup. Lightly salted and very grainy (how many pounds of soy beans do you need for this?), it was cool on my palate. A sense of deja vu nagged at me.  While my brain frenetically searched for a match, I ventured another sip. Voila! It was very much like vichyssoise (a French cold soup made of potato). However, the problem is: I do not like vichyssoise; as a matter of fact, I do not like any cold soup because cold soups do not make any sense for me. I would rather eat potage (I am exhausting my French vocabulary today: it is a hot creamy soup of vegetables) or not eat soup at all during the month of August.  After all, there are other kinds of food good for that hot summer day, you know?  Ever heard of watermelon? Nonetheless, there was something in this soup that was inviting me for another sip. Pause and think: what is it that makes it so savoury? Ah, there were some kind of nuts in the soy milk; although of course, soy being so dominant, I could not figure out what kind of nuts they were - not peanuts, pistachios or sesame seeds since these nuts had strong flavors. The nuttiness added depth to this otherwise simple soy milk mixture, which also provided a sweet aftertaste. The graininess left in your mouth seemed to curiously urge another sip of the soup, as if waiting to be washed down by more soy milk.

Now the noodles: These fine noodles kicked back against the teeth, typical of Korean cold noodles. Different from being chewy or al dente, when you bite these Korean cold noodles, the way the noodles break upon impact feels more like being "chopped off."  (Lost in translation?  English language has so few words to describe the texture of food, so what can I do?) Chopping the noodles on the one hand, sipping the thick soy soup on the other, I realized that this kongguksu was quite getting under my skin:  Something about the nuttiness, the graininess and the texture of noodles, so simple and yet alluring me to go back for one more mouthful. Before long, more than half of the contents of the wash basin was gone.

A small dish of kimchi, appearing almost sorry to have accompanied this primordial magnificence.  I ate it separately from time to time to take a break from the soy orgy.
I left the restaurant with a self-righteous sense of well-being - one more mystery healthily solved.

Name: Chinjyufegwan (晋洲会館)
Address: Believe me, I want to tell you, but Blogger refuses to let me cut and paste Korean... Just google before you go.

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