Friday, April 27, 2007

Cool Things Korean (part 4)

Icheon Ssalbap (이천 쌀밥)
This restaurant takes its name from the town of Icheon, once the farming region from which the Kings of the Joseon Dynasty's rice came. The hypse would seem to suggest some kind of superior quality to the land in Icheon, some salient geomantic advantage for the region or perhaps an ancient pact between the king and the local leaders, but most people believe that the Kings sourced their rice from Icheon because it wasn't too far from Seoul. Ssalbap means rice: Korea has two distinct words for uncooked rice (ssal, pronounced sort of like the name Sol) and cooked rice (bap, pronounced like bop). So ssalbap translates to "ricerice". Anyway, the restaurant's official name is The King's Icheon Ssalbap (임금님의 이천 쌀밥), but folks round these parts usually drop the King.
Truth be told, nobody goes to this restaurant for the rice. After all, not being far from Seoul is no longer a marketing advantage for rice growers, and I suspect a large portion of the CO2 that the rice paddies in question consume comes out of tailpipes. The rice is cooked in a stone pot, and then scooped into a bowl. Hot water is added to the stone pot, where the rice that's scorched onto the red hot bowl soaks in the water and creates a palate cleansing chunky tea called nurungji (누룽지, sometimes translated as 'scorched rice') to be enjoyed at the end of the meal. The real draw here is the side dishes. For 8,000 won apiece (about $8), my wife, mother-in-law and I enjoyed 24 side dishes, a large broiled fish, crab soup , poached egg and kimchi jjigae (all three not pictured) and lettuce and cabbage leaves for wrapping.

The side dishes were:
pulled pork and boiled egg
lettuce with Thousand Islands dressing
sweet and sour pork
bean sprouts
shiitake mushrooms
garlic stalks
dotori (acorn) muk
doraji (Chinese bellflower root)
potato salad
steamed octopus and broccoli with vinegared red pepper paste fer dippin' (tastes alot better than it sounds)

Sure, some of the side dishes are straight junk (Thousand Islands?) but for the experience alone this place is well worth the eight grand. Plus you get all the plum juice and shikhye (kind of a sweetened rice juice, with rice still floating in it) you can drink.

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