A Korean saying goes, âThere is so much food that the legs of the table will collapse. With the stack of food in front of me at Dokcheon Sikdang, a restaurant filled with large aquariums and comfortable, unpretentious private rooms in the port city of Mokpo in southwest Korea, I began to fear that this does not happen. A type of seaweed called tot, which looked like a hairy spider, tasted surprisingly subtle. A dish of raw octopus with long legs melted like velvet in my mouth. When I commented on how delicious it was, my table mate Byeong Ju Kim, former director of Jeollanam-do regional tourism board, said, âYesterday these guys were in the mud.
Just as Italians say you haven’t eaten real Italian food before you went to Sicily, Koreans will tell you that for the best Korean food you have to visit South Jeolla Province, or Jeollanam-do, a place with the spectacular coasts of the estuary. , green tea fields, rolling silvery beaches and over a thousand islands, some of which make up Dadohaehaesang National Park. Many associate Korean cuisine with spicy kimchi and salted meats and grilled meats, but Jeollanam-do cuisine is more delicate, complex, fresher, its dishes rich in gifts from the sea. Some have told me that the unique culinary culture Jeollanam-do arose out of the task of feeding political exiles with expensive tastes sent here during the 16th century; others that it is the by-product of the region’s historic isolation. Tourism only arrived in southern Jeollanam-do recently, and the slow pace of life and community spirit that defined Korea half a century ago remains intact, even though the region is only ‘a three-hour drive south of Seoul on the heights. high-speed train.
The day I arrived in Mokpo was a day of memory. The city was buzzing with parades and speeches commemorating the anniversary of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, a large-scale civil movement against the martial law government, which began with peaceful protests in Gwangju, the largest city in Gwangju Province. Jeolla from the South, spread throughout Jeollanam-do, and was then brutally suppressed. Seoul, home to more than half of the country’s 51.3 million population, is recklessly rushing into the future, razing its buildings and embracing international architecture, food and culture, but the southern Jeollanam-do works hard to preserve his past. In 2018, Mokpo was one of three relatively unknown cities designated by the South Korean government for the important role it has played in the country’s modern history. Its downtown area is a “roofless museum”, a collection of historic streets and picturesque buildings preserved from the Japanese colonial period, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. In the dry heat of the afternoon, I walked around strolled through the old Japanese consulate, customs building, and countless two-story Japanese houses called jeoksan gaok, which means “the house of the enemy”.
It was difficult to associate Mokpo with a town cordoned off by troops as I gazed at the shimmering image of the islands just offshore or the verdant foliage of nearby Mount Yudal, which looked ripped from a jungle painting by Henri Rousseau. I took a three kilometer long glass bottom cable car and walked to the top of the mountain to admire the rugged coastline of Mokpo and the sparkling azure archipelago beyond. The limestone cliffs, emerald waters and hidden coves and caves of Dadohaehaesang National Park would not have looked out of place in Southeast Asia. My guide, Yoo, attributed the park’s unspoiled beauty to its seclusion, but today many of its sparsely populated islands are easily accessible by daily ferries from Jindo Island or by yacht charter.
On Gwanmaedo, my favorite island, the roads wind around the lapis lazuli of perfectly sheltered bays, camellias and beaches with no soul in sight except for the occasional goat guarding from its cliff. About 200 people live here, although the population increases tenfold in high season. People who live in Jeollanam-do year-round tend to be less reserved and more likely to join your table for a drink than people from the colder climates of North Korea. In Gwanmaedo, my guide Mr. Bak suddenly asked me if I wanted to try a locally brewed mugwort makgeolli. Puzzled, I accepted. Within minutes, he arrived with three neighbors, two plastic bottles, and a large bowl of white kimchi in chilled broth that he had dragged out of a resident’s house. A woman in loose floral pants insisted on giving me the sweet and fresh kimchi with chopsticks, saying, “It’s absolutely delicious, and you can’t leave without trying it!” We didn’t know our names, but she acted like she could be my aunt.