Saturday, February 20, 2010

ラミューネーション イン 韓国、その二 (Ramyunating in Korea, Part Two)

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.


Unknown said...

loved this little story, loved the pics... not sure if i'd ever get to korea, and especially not for instant noodles...

Anonymous said...


I left a message on your blog some months ago and I must say I'm still enjoying every bit of your work!

An avid ramen lover myself, I still don't quite understand the classifications of ramen according to their regions. As I know it, the four main types are Shio, Tonkotsu, Shoyu, and Miso. It would be great if you could tell me which regions of Japan the aforementioned categories are assosiated with. Please also feel free to add to the list if necessary. Thanks for your help in advance!

Best Regards,

miyoung said...

Hey,I found Ramenate! through an article about ramen New york times. You must love ramen very much! You are also blogging even Korean instant ramen! I am impressed by your saying 'where you eat ramen also makes it different!'.

James said...

This is a partial answer to anonymous's question in case Nate does not respond. Miso ramen is associated with the northern island of Hokkaido; shoyu with Tokyo and, I guess Honshu in general; tonkatsu (also known as hakate ramen?)-the pork broth- with the southernmost island of Kyushu. But, I don't recall where shio flavor is associated.

This is a great blog, one of the very few that I read. It's well written, witty, informative and the triple punning title is very good—clearly the work of a lit. person. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Ramen-Korean, Japanese or Chinese are all comfort food for me. Anytime I'm tired and just want to chill-I start with a good heaping bowl!

Thank you for this most wonderful blog. I found Ramenate just searching for photos of Ramen.


edjusted said...

Love the b&w pics...a bit sad there weren't higher res versions to look at :P

I'm with you on visiting remote places. Even when I go to big cities, I spend an inordinate amount of time just wandering down alleys. Keep it up!

Nate said...

thanks everyone for the great comments! ive had a friend in town so havent been interneting, sorry for the late replies....

@oliver - thanks! i loved going on the trip. its far, but dont overlook korea. i mostly was gorging on more proper foodstuffs, but what these old ladies do with instant noodles takes them into a whole other category...

@Charles - thanks so much for the kind words! it's a great question, and a surprisingly complicated one. your comment made me think that i should probably post up some kind of basic primer post in the near future, but for the time being, a short answer:

although ramen is often categorized into shio (salt), shoyu (soy), miso, and tonkotsu (pork bone), this is actually a bit misleading. put in the most basic terms, there are two elements to ramen soup - the broth, which is generally made from one or all of the following: pork bones, chicken bones, seafood, seaweed, and vegetables; then there's the other element, the "tare" (also called motodare or kaeshi) which is a much thicker, stronger distilled flavor essence almost like a syrup that is added to the soup with each bowl. so a shop could have a singular broth, and that produce both shio and shoyu ramen by using different tare additives at the final stage. miso shops can be even more complicated, either using a tare, or often actually miso paste itself. tonkotsu refers not to a tare, but a kind of broth, namely one made primarily or entirely from pork bones / marrow. this will generally have a tare as well, often shoyu, though not a strong one, rather merely to add proper seasoning and saltiness and strength to the soup. there are some ramen shops that don't use tare, most famously tokyo's ramen zero, but that's very rare and experimental, since its tough to create a soup strong enuogh using only broth.

James' comment below is on the right track - miso ramen is generally associated with Hokkaido, though more specifically with the capital city of Sapporo, as other cities have their other local specialties (curry in Muroran, etc...); tonkotsu ramen is indeed associated with the southern island of Kyushu, the most famous of which is the sub style of Hakata ramen, though there are many others (Kurume, Kumamoto, Oita, etc, etc). The only locality associated strongly with shio ramen is the Hokkaido port city of Hakodate. Shoyu ramen is in a sense the "original" and most baseline type of ramen, but that includes a remarkable variety of remarkably different styles that could all be alled "shoyu". Regionally speaking, Northeastern Japan from Tokyo on up is shoyu ramen heartland. There's a lot more to say, but I think I'll save it for a proper post at a later date. Essentially, the thing to remember is these are very general classifications, and furthermore, ones made common before the current ramen boom, which has seen an incredible diversity of new, old, and experimental styles hit the market, and many contemporary shops would be difficult to classify as just one. Take the fantastic Bassanova, where Keizo of works: their signature dish is Thai Green Curry ramen. So, it could be called a curry ramen, but it's also based on a tonkotsu broth that I believe is also blended with fish stock. So how do we categorize it? We don't, we just eat it! Thanks for the great question.

Nate said...

miyoung - thanks for the feedback. generally, i dont blog about instant ramen (though there is a lot in Japan, with many famous shops well represented), but korea was a special case, especially since instant ramen is a restaurant dish there. keep on reading!

@James - thanks so much for chipping in wtih some help for Charles' question. much appreciated, since it took me a while to get to the computer this time. I covered most of it in the answer to his above. and thanks so much for the compliments. i am nothing other than a literature student who loves noodles, so im glad it shows!

@mdee88 - awesome! as much as im always running around for ramen, the reason i like it so much is because its just what you said, comfort food. there will be a lot more drool-worthy photos coming, stay tuned!

@edjusted - alleys are where its at my man! yeah, i have hi-res versions of those photos, but didnt have them on my memory stick, so had to redownload them at lo-res from the uploading site i use. maybe ill eventually post the full-res versions. as soon as i get caught up on the 25 bowls ive eaten but havent written up...

Anonymous said...

Hi Nate,

Thanks for your detailed reply - it was a LOT more than I had expected and it managed to give me a little mini-lesson too! Please keep up with this blog and I look forward to seeing more of your great work in the future.

An avid ramen fan,

Nate said...

thanks a lot charles! i appreciate the kind words, and glad i could help out with the question. i just loaded up a bunch of post to be coming out at regular intervals, so keep on checking back!