Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Looks Like Mud. Tastes Like Heaven.

"I was just trying to catch a few eels to make an eel stew. Though, I suppose I won't get any, and you wouldn't like it if I do," said the charmingly despondent Tom Baker as Puddleglum the Marshwiggle in the BBC production of C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair. He continued, "it's against reason that you should like our vittles... Food for Wiggles is poison for Humans."

Seongka'ne, one of Pyeongtaek's most
 popular restaurants
As a young boy I used to be thrilled by the glorious taboo of Puddleglum's muddy, eel stew. Fast forward a couple decades and down the street from my first apartment in Korea stood Seongka'ne Keunjip Chu'eo'tang (성가네 큰집 추어탕), a stew restaurant. And not just any stew restaurant. On its yellow sign were what appeared to be two, big, happy eels. I had found Puddleglum's stew. The restaurant is one of Pyeongtaek's busiest. And despite Puddleglum's negativity, there is every reason
why you should like their vittles.

Seongka'ne actually doesn't serve eel stew. They serve chu'eo tang (추어탕). The translation is, "mud loach stew." Yes, that actually sounds worse than eel stew, but it is far from poisonous. In fact, is is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted in Korea.

Mud loaches (also called mi'ggu'raji 미꾸라지 in Korean) are small, eel-like, freshwater bottom feeders. Because they can breath air as well as water, they are sometimes found in mud. However, while the stew may look like mud, it tastes like anything but.

Chu'eo tang's flavor is a little hard to pin down. If you tried a bowl of it without knowing what it was, you would never suspect that it was made out of pulverized fish. It is definitely savory and rich in the manner of dark poultry. And it lacks the greasiness of red meat. If someone had told me it was the stew of a small mammal or of some wild bird like a pheasant or quail, I wouldn't have questioned them.

Dolsotbap transforms into sung'nyung
The texture is where the dish suffers a bit. Overall it is just what you might expect from a thick stew made from ground fish. It's a little creamy. However, it's a bit grainy too. And sometimes there is a mildly sandy crunch to get through. It is very light, so I am not sure if this is actual sand from the creature's gut; grains of tiny, ground bones; or one of the seasonings in the stew. Luckily, the effect is so mild and the flavor is so good, it is easy to ignore.

Like many Korean stews, chu'eo tang is great with a bowl of rice. The restaurant gives you two options: stew with gongi bap, that is with a plain bowl of rice; or stew with dolsotbap (돌솥밥): a large, hot bowl of rice. The first is 6,000 won. The latter is 7,000 won. The advantage of dolsot bap is that after you scoop out your rice you can pour water in the bowl and make a toasty rice soup called, sung'nyung (숭늉).

Rice is so essential to the meal that a sign in the back of the restaurant even gives directions on how best to enjoy it with your stew. According to the sign, for the very best experience, you should put half your rice in your stew and mix the other half with the chopped green chillies and some preserved, spicy oyster called eoli'guljeot (어리굴젓). The rice definitely fortifies the stew, stretching it out and making it more filling. And mixed with the preserved oysters, the rice assumes a taste distinctly reminiscent of the ocean. Having grown up by the sea, I found the oceanic flavor enjoyable. However, the NetBot, EatKorea's robot taste tester from suburban California, was not so keen on it.

A variety of side dishes including
eoli'guljeot (center bottom)
The sign in the back of the shop talks about more than the rice. Chu'eo tang apparently is a nutritious health food. The fish, the sign claims, are like nutritional supplements. The whole fish is ground up bones, guts and all. And because of this it is said the stew contains lots of calcium and protein among other less believable nutrients. The claims don't stop there. Like most Korean health foods, it is believed that the fish improves a person's sexual stamina. Who can really say? But at very least, this satisfying meal does provide enough strength to tide one over until dinner.

Seongka'ne Keunjip Chu'eo'tang is extremely busy. Do not be surprised if you have to wait to be seated. They are open from 10am to 9pm. To get there take the 50 or 20 bus from Pyeongtaek Station to the City Hall stop in front of Lotte Mart. When you get off the bus, backtrack to the intersection that the bus passed through just before the stop. When you get to that intersection, turn left toward Lotte Mart. Walk straight and continue past the store until you see a CU convenience mart on your right. Seongka'ne will also be on your right across from CU.

(Thanks to Park Junsik for obtaining the open hours)

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