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A Chef's Tour
ON EVERY DINING table in Ryunique - a modern fine dining restaurant in Seoul’s Gangnam district - is a map.
It’s a cute, cartoonish map of the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, littered with whimsical sketches - a fish, crab, cow, pig, chicken, abalone, melon, figs, you name it - marking different spots from Goseong on top to Jeju island at the bottom.
For the diner, it’s just an endearing picture drawn by chef-owner Ryu Tae Hwan (he once wanted to be an artist) to show where his ingredients come from. But for him, it’s more than just showing you his ‘supermarket’ - it’s the culmination of three years of hard work scouring the country for the best artisanal farmers, who have also become his friends.
It brings life - and a heartfelt story - to the cuisine of a chef who set out to seek his culinary identity and found it in his own backyard. “When I started Ryunique in 2011, I was very focused on technique first, and ingredients second,” explains the 38-year-old who worked in Tokyo, Sydney and London for almost 10 years before returning to Seoul. While fellow fine dining chefs interpret traditional Korean cooking in modern ways, chef Ryu went the progressive Japanese-French route, “showing off”, as he says, until a crisis of confidence caused him to do some self-reflection.
“I realised the importance of ingredients in making a good dish,” he says. “It’s about seasons, the terroir. It’s about completing a circle: technique, ingredient, and the final dish. They are all connected.”
He started from scratch, researching and driving thousands of kilometers to visit new producers once a week until he finally had a go-to list of farmers whom he now visits once a month or every two months. It has given him renewed purpose as he streamlines his techniques to showcase the integrity of the product, while sticking to his modern Japanese-French philosophy. At the same time, he sees himself as an unofficial champion of Korean farmers, to provide a spotlight for them through his cuisine.
When we first encountered Ryunique - and Korean fine dining in general - it was with a palate shaped by the largesse offered in Japan which we didn’t think any other country could compete with, until we sampled his cooking. So when he invited us to tag along on one of his sourcing trips, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Suffice to say, the experience was totally eye-opening.
The allure of Pine
At the historic inter-Korean summit in September this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gifted his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in two tonnes of pine mushrooms, which is the equivalent of someone showing up on your doorstep with a lorry load of white Alba truffles, or maybe more.
We’re standing in a makeshift warehouse surrounded by styrofoam boxes filled with the precious fungi, in the middle of nowhere - ok, Bonghwa, about a three hour drive east of Seoul where the terrain is mountainous and studded with coniferous trees. The air is clean and sweetly scented with pine. When the pine needles drop to the ground, the mushrooms absorb their flavour and become the highly-prized delicacy that can cost up to US$600 a kg.
The mushrooms cannot be farmed, which makes harvesting them quite treacherous as experienced hunters trek through the mountains to bring back sacks of them strategically tied to their bodies. Chef Ryu says, “I tried to follow them mushroom hunting one year. It’s very dangerous.” Which is why he gets his stash from Hong Joo Sun, president of Byuck Chon Trading, a family-owned farm which has been harvesting pine - or Matsutake in Japanese - mushrooms for the past 50 years.
The family owns the surrounding land, and has a group of trusted workers - nimble middle-aged men who are probably more agile than urbanites half their age - who empty their sacks onto the newspaper-lined floor for grading. “The best quality are long, perfectly straight with small round caps,” explains chef Ryu. Second-best are the same but shorter, while the third-grade mushrooms are bent, with some imperfections.
Mr Hong’s farm used to bring in 1000kg a day during the pine mushroom season - which lasts just one month from mid-September to mid-October. That was before global warming, when the temperature in Bonghwa held steady at 11 degrees Celsius. Now, with temperature variations, the yield has dropped to 200kg a day. The Korean pine mushrooms are said to be superior to the Japanese matsutake, so you could be eating the Korean version in your favourite Tokyo kaiseki restaurant for all you know. We sample them raw here, just torn into large shreds, dipped into sesame oil and coarse salt. It’s got a lovely, woody, clean fragrance with delicate flavour and firm texture. They are excellent in soups or grilled and most important, have health-giving properties.
In Bonghwa itself, all meat-lovers are drawn to Hanyakwoo Plaza (www.bhhywoo.co.kr) - which is akin to Korean barbecue paradise. Part supermarket and part restaurant, you choose your desired cut and quality of locally-raised beef or hanyakwoo, and bring your purchases to be grilled in the latter.
You’ll notice in the foyer a display of medicinal herbs and grains, which is what differentiates hanyakwoo from the more familiar hanwoo, aka Korea’s answer to wagyu. Bonghwa is famous for its Chinese herbs, and specialises in raising cows fed with a mix of oats, corn, nutmeg, mandarin orange peel, angelica and liquorice to supplement the usual feed.
“Bonghwa is nicknamed Bonberia because it’s like Siberia,” jokes chef Ryu. “Because it gets very cold, the pine/matsutake mushrooms are very intense in flavour with superior texture. A lot of good things grow here, like apples, which are very sweet. It’s like a secret place, with most of the produce grown here consumed here. Very little goes outside of Bonghwa.”
It’s the same for the beef, which is mostly consumed here and at Ryunique, where chef Ryu serves the top grade - 1++ (the equivalent of wagyu’s A5 but not with the same level of fat) either grilled or shabu shabu-style.
While Japan is way ahead in the wagyu game, Korea is steadily catching up, developing hanwoo that many swear is superior to wagyu because it is tender while retaining a natural beefy flavour. Wagyu is bred for marbling, so you get melt-in-the-mouth texture with not much flavour, a pet peeve of carnivores. Koreans, on the other hand, are afraid of so much fat, so the cows are bred more for the quality of the meat and tenderness with less marbling.
The farm that we visit is extremely clean, with well-kept animals that recognise the farmer who cares for them - so well that he can trace the lineage of each one of them, thanks to technology paid for by the government. The herbal supplements are also provided by them, and are supposed to improve the health of the cow, producing high quality meat that is rich in oleic acids. The taste? A sweet, rich beefy flavour with a very slight chew but still amazingly tender.
Jirisan mountain black Pork
Namwon is a small city in North Jeolla province, about 50 minutes drive from the old city of Jeonju, and the last place you expect to find a young South African working in a Korean charcuterie that makes the local version of Spanish jamon and salami.
In fact, both Andy Cremer and jamon are oddities in the small village near Jirisan mountain, which is famous for its Berkshire pigs and succulent fatty pork.
Mr Cremer, who is married to a Korean and was a former English teacher who somehow ended up in the country and never left, speaks the language fluently. He grew up in South Africa where he learned to hunt and cure meat and in a case of serendipity, joined forces with Oh In-suk, the lady owner of a pig farm specializing in Berkshire pork. It was she who went to Spain’s Basque country to see how jamon is made and how it could be translated into the Korean context.
The company, Salmadang, is perhaps the only one in Korea making jamon from local pigs. The idea sparked because of Koreans’ preference for fatty pork, namely the belly, neck and shoulder. “Leaner cuts like the back legs are hard to sell,” explains Mr Cremer. Because of the high altitude it’s cooler, and windy, which are perfect conditions for curing meat.
They’ve been doing this for the past three to four years, processing 200 legs a year, and they are planning to expand. They currently make jamon - which is moist and not as salty as the Spanish version, and delicious cured salamis and sausages. The products are sold online (www.thechophouse.co.kr) if you know enough Korean to buy it.
Ms Oh is married to Park Hwa Chun - a scientist who is famous in the area for his research on swine breeding, and is part of the Korean Berkshire association. He’s constantly working to breed better pigs for texture, softness and umami - in fact, the animals live a healthy, stress-free life because the better condition they are in, the higher quality the meat. Unlike other countries where health-conscious folk demand their pork lean, dry and tasteless, Korean pork stands out for its juicy, tender texture, and if it’s top quality Berkshire, Dr Park has all the research to prove that the fat is healthy and extremely good for you. It better be, because this is the only kind of pork you will want to eat.
Korean jamon and now, Korean caviar? Absolutely, as Almas Caviar (www.almascaviar.com/wordeng) prides itself as the only no-kill sturgeon farm in Korea and possibly the world, thanks to technology developed by its founder Edward Han.
It may also be the only farm in Korea, due to the long process - at least 10 years - to build up a steady stock of sturgeon to harvest its eggs, so not many businesses have that tenacity, says Jehee Han, director of Almas Caviar.
The fish live in Chungju, in the centre of the Korean peninsula where the weather and water are conducive, she adds. Sturgeon can live till 100, so Mr Han developed a technology where the eggs are extracted without killing them first, which is the usual industry practice. “The Russians also have a similar technology, but they make an incision, sew it and release the fish, which eventually die. Our technology is secret, we don’t share it.” The result is that they now have 40000 sturgeon, up from the original 198 when they started 20 years ago.
They supply sevruga, oscietra and beluga caviar, which is “competitively priced and a lot is exported to the US”. Flavoured only with salt, the sevruga that we tasted is pretty mild in flavour, but tasty.
There’s a frilly cheese that chef Ryu serves at the end of a meal at Ryunique, which is basically a hard cheese that shaves into frilly-edged ribbons. It’s the creation of cheesemaker Son Min Woo of Sammin Dairy Farm in Hamyang county. He is one of maybe 10 artisanal cheesemakers in Korea, and his one-year aged gouda has won him widespread acclaim, along with the frilly cheese which is inspired by the Swiss Tête de Moine cheese. He learned how to make cheese from a Korean cheesemaker who worked in a dairy in Germany, near the Polish border, where he learned his skills before returning home to teach.
The family-owned farm has around 100 Holstein cows - a small production - and produces delicious thick, creamy yoghurt that’s quite addictive. Koreans like mild cheese, so they also make very good haloumi - great lightly grilled till soft and gooey - and string cheese.
Fruits of the Land
Japan isn’t always the source of top quality fruits and vegetables. Grapes, apples, pears and even capsicum are the prized crops of family farms dotted around the countryside. Farmers here toil the land over generations so it’s not unusual to find young men like Cho Yoong Jae learning the ropes at his father’s paprika farm in Un Bong, 55km from Jeonju. This is where they grow and harvest sweet, crunchy red and yellow papers using cool automated tracks that move along the rows of plants to make it easier for workers to pluck the fruit.
Over in Cheonan, you need to be very fast to catch the Kyoho grape and Shine muscat season. The area is hot in the day and very cold at night, which is perfect for the sugar content to accumulate in the fragrant grapes. The sweetest muscat grapes are those that are left hanging on the vines till perfectly ripe, and the best way to taste that is at the farm itself. Shine muscat appears for 20 days in the middle of September, while the purple Kyoho grapes last from August to October.
Chungju is famous for its apples, and Lee Goo Yeon runs his parents’ Apple Mountain Farm, which has been around for some 40 years. His mother is now 99 years old and still actively pottering around the 1.6 hectare farm. The farm grows conventional Fuji apples but also the local Hong Oh - sweet-sour but intense apple flavour - and Hong Ro, which is the sweetest and best quality.
One thing all these farms have in common - and what forms the foundation of chef Ryu’s cuisine philosophy - is that they are all family-run, and dedicated to producing top quality ingredients that will end up on the tables of his restaurants. Chef Ryu is their story-teller and for his audience, it opens up a whole new culinary world for them to discover.