Monday, March 2, 2015

The House of Mountain Vegetables

Koreans have a passionate love of the mountains. It is really hard to ignore. Just get on any public transportation and you're bound to see aged, backpack bearing Koreans armed with hiking poles and regaled head to toe in colorful synthetic blends. The call of the mountains goes well beyond open spaces and fresh air, though. Korea's mountains are closely associated with fresh, natural, and even curative veggies. It is this reputation for fresh, healthy vegetables that Sanchaewon (산채원), a "mountain-veggie" restaurant, takes full advantage of.

The interior is very clean and strangely airy and bright for being indoors. It is almost as if the restaurant was perched on a mountainside instead of its real location on an ugly, developing street near Lotte Mart. The sliding doors use a homemade pulley and weight system that uses gravity to close them. The heavy, ceramic bowls are crafted to appear to have been hewn out of stone. Herbal, solomon's seal tea (dung'gul'le cha 둥굴레차) is poured out of thin, aluminum pots like those found at old and traditional restaurants. A lot of effort went into making the restaurant look and feel like a fresh, wholesome, mountain abode, and their food certainly enforces the effect.

Their mostly vegetarian menu centers around three rustic foods: mountain veggies (산채), deo'deok (더덕), and hwangtae (황태).

The mountain veggies at Sanchaewon include a forest glade full of fresh and prepared veggies: bracken ferns (gosari 고사리), shitaki mushrooms (pyogobeoseot 표고버섯), radish tops (si'laegi 시래기), soybean sprouts (kongnamul 콩나물), spinach (sigeumchi 시금치), lettuce (sang'chu 생추), kimchi radish (mu saengchae'namul 무생채나물), and pimpinella (cham'namul 참나물). Normally these are banchan (반찬), side dishes. But in Sanchaewon's "sanchae jeongshik" (산채정식), it is the main course. Add a hot stone bowl of rice (dolsot bap 돌솥밥), and these veggies become a palette for designing your own bibimbap. Sanchae jeongshik can only be ordered for at least two people. And at 11,000 won per person, it is a lot more expensive than the alternative — ordering a bowl of bibimbap. Yet, whether you order their vegetable platter or a 7,000 won bowl of bibimbap, you can depend on the food being fresh and handmade. I've been eating there since they opened a few years ago, and their bibimbap has always been the best in Pyeongtaek. 

Deo'deok is the root of a plant that few in the West, except perhaps avid gardeners, herbalists and botanists would recognize. Have you heard of Codonopsis lanceolata, also known as bonnet bellflower? It sounds poisonous, but this plant is supposedly healthy for you, promoting immune and mental health

"It's like real nature," my friend Jerry Park said about grilled deo'deok in general. "You can smell the freshness of the forest."

Hwangtae is walleye pollack that is hung on wooden frames and left to the mercy of the winter elements. In time, the extreme weather naturally freeze-dries the fish. It looks similar to how some Native American tribes traditionally preserved their fish. 

Every time I have visited Sanchaewon I have been craving bibimbap, so I haven't tried their deo'deok or hwangtae. I have tried them at other restaurants, though, and in my experience they are more suited to broader palates. Deo'deok has a strong rooty flavor reminiscent of something a groundhog in a field of wildflowers might enjoy. And hwangtae, though not especially fishy, can be chewy in a way Westerners don't normally associate with fish. I like them, but then again, I like almost everything. 

Sides: (clockwise) jeon (전), jeotgal (젓갈), 
mul kimchi (물김치), eolgali kimchi (얼갈이김치),  
doenjang guk (된장국) , 
ganjang chojeol'im  (간장초절임)
Whether you order vegetables, weird roots or preserved fish, as at most Korean restaurants, you can expect to find a broad range of homemade side dishes. The sides dishes at Sanchaewon change a little from time to time. For example, back in December my bibimbap included white kimchi (baek kimchi 백김치) and seasoned, boiled daikon radish (Jolim'mu 조림무). However, when I visited last week the side dishes had changed. Instead of boiled radish and white kimchi, my meal had spicy pickled radish (간장초절임) and water kimchi (물감치). While the sides can change, you can always expect an unusually vegetal bowl of doenjang guk (된장국) and some kind of kimchi.   

Sanchaewon is open 10am to 10pm. They are pretty easy to find. Take the 50 or 20 bus from Pyeongtaek Station to the City Hall stop (shi'cheong 시청) in front of Lotte Mart. When you get off at the stop, backtrack to the intersection and turn left toward Lotte Mart. Walk past the store and keep on going straight until you see a CU mini-mart on your right. Go down the street beside CU. Sanchaewon will be on your right, across from the dirt lot behind the mart.  

(Some reporting by Park Junsik)

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1 comment:

  1. Wonderful read Michael...made me feel like I was back again