A couple of weeks back, I posted an update about a bowl of ramyun gruzzled on my recent trip to Korea. I had fully intended to make another post about my other bowl of ramen on the continent, but then there was that whole thing about being featured in the New York Times. I figured it would probably be unbecoming for all the new visitors to show up on the site and only see posts about instant noodles in Korea, rather than ramen shops in Tokyo, so I put off the second half of the trip report...until now!
After leaving Seoul (a day later than originally planned...I'd like to thank the third worst hangover of my entire life), I headed to the southeasternmost corner of the Korean peninsula, to a town called Mokpo, from which I caught a boat oat to the remote offshore islands of Heuksando and Hongdo.
Needless to say, this part of Korea is a very different world from the megalopolis a half day's bus and boat ride away. When Ramenate goes on vacation, he heads to remote fishing villages in the dead of winter, folks. My vacation this time last year was to Manchuria. What can I say, I get bored quick on sunny beaches.
Despite being part of a maritime nature preserve, Heuksando and Hongdo aren't exactly scenic in the traditional sense, or at least not pristine sense. Which, of course, makes them much more interesting. I can look at pretty rocks anywhere, but how often do you get to experience what one Korean friend of mine called "Escape from Bum Island?" After watching a lot of stingrays and monkfish auctioned off to seafood merchants, I befriended a vacationing couple who helped me find some grub, which is not an easy task in this part of the world, at least, not in the off season.
We traveled from Heuksando further into the sea, to the even more remote island of Hongdo, which seemed to be sort of like the Korean island equivalent of Mad Max. I don't want to give a bad impression about the place - I met all kinds of nice people on this godforsaken rock that harkened images of postapocalpytic end times. I know you didn't sign up for a travelogue here, but I feel like I need to give some context for the second most far flung bowl of ramen I've ever eaten.
I was dozing on the heated floor of my hotel room when my new friends knocked on my door making the East Asia-wide gesture for dinnertime - miming chopsticks shoveling rice into your mouth. We wandered out into the near pitch black down to the pier.
Fortunately, the inside of the vinyl lean-to was kept nice and warm thanks to a small space heater, a chubby proprietress, and plenty of alcohol. Warm enough that halfway through our meal an 80 year old man wandered in for dinner in his bare feet.
The shop specialized in sashimi, raw cuts of obscure shellfish that I couldn't begin to name. I think there was probably some abalone in there, but otherwise, your guess as to the original identity of these life forms is as good as mine. Unlike in Japan, where soy sauce is the standard, most people in Korea dip their seafood in chili paste, garlic, and sesame oil, which is fine by me.
But weird and possibly still alive shellfish parts do not a full meal make, so it didn't take too many glasses of beer until we ordered a piping warm bowl of ramyun. Actually, we ordered a whole pot, brought to our table in situ. I opted for the provided styrofoam bowl...
...but my buddy showed me how they do it "Korean countryside style" and started heaping noodles onto the metal lid. We both slurped away for all we were worth, to keep warm, to absorb the soju in our bellies, to risk offending the fishermen at the next table. Oh yeah, and because it was totally delicious. Did I mention that the homemade kimchi was also killer?
This was a piping hot bowl just like mom used to make. Literally - my love for ramen took me to Shin Ramyun early on. Going through the comment thread on the recent NYT article, there seems to be a bit of back and forth about how much ramen is just "about the food", how much is about the search, and so on. You can't think about the experience of a meal without thinking about where you ate it, and who you ate it with, and no bowl in Tokyo can taste quite like instant noodles slurped in a shack on a rock in the middle of the Yellow Sea.