Note: This has been stuck in "Draft" purgatory for several months, but I decided to just throw it up as-is. Find this place and have a meal there, it's incredible!
I've raved about Perilla (들깨) on this blog before. You can eat the leaves raw or as kimchi; you can eat the seeds raw or roasted, or powder them to add to to soups, sides, and even pancakes; and you can use the oil to dress salads or to cook just about anything. Perilla, by virtue of its myriad uses, seems to me to be on par with coconuts, or even with hemp.
Though, of course, there are some small differences.
Anyway, such thoughts regarding the resourcefulness of Korean cuisine, the absolute refusal to waste any part of a plant, and thus the earth, rain, and sunlight that brought it to life, surfaced in my mind on a recent visit to Nokyaweon, a truly splendid restaurant located in Chilgok's less-visited east side. In particular, it was this that threw me into a reverie:
That's right, yet another perilla dish, which I hereby dub "pickeld perilla pod." (들깨 줄기 짱아치). If you look closely, you may be able to see that each stem has a series of little vase-like protrusions, each shaped just-so, perfectly able to cradle and eventually release the seeds that will eventually become next year's plant, or, in this case, this evening's meal.
The slightly sour, stingy pickled perilla pod is just one of dozens of beautifully prepared, wholesome, delicious side dishes that come standard with every Nokyaweon course meal. The dishes all change with the season, but here's a typical first course:
Starting from the center, moving outwards in a clockwise spiral: black sesame and pumpkin seed porridge, lettuce and cabbage salad, soft tofu salad, jellyfish with julienned vegetables, a pumpkin pancake, and steamed pumpkin and bean sprout side dishes.
Then come some of the heavy hitters: pan-fried tofu; lettuce, onion, and carrot salad with rich, sweet, spicy dressing; assorted bibimbap veggies; radish leaf and perilla powder soup; and hearty whole-grain rice.
There's more, too, but I didn't want to fill the post up with too many pictures. Suffice it to say that I wouldn't have been surprised if the table had collapsed under the weight of our meal.
I was introduced to Nokyaweon one fateful day by Mr. Kim Gi-su, manager of Chilgok's 농부장터 (The Farmers' Marketplace). Owner Kim Myeong-suk, as the decor makes clear, originally intended Nokyaweon as a place to share her family's knowledge about the power of tea, particularly Puer Tea (보이차) when grown, fermented, and processed according to traditional methods, to promote human health. In fact, Mrs. Kim's husband spends one semester a year in China lecturing about tea at universities and traveling deep into the countryside near the Burmese border to collect the finest tea leaves.
Nonetheless, the snacks and side dishes served along with the tea were so tasty that customers continually requested more, leading Nokyaweon to shift their emphasis. Now, at least in the mind of the hungry customer, the tea takes a backseat to the food.
And what food! Like Mr. Kim's store, Nokyaweon is about good food in all senses of the word - good for the palate, good for people, good for the planet. In their own words:
"At Tea-loving Nokyaweon...
- In order to preserve the inherent taste of our carefully selected ingredients,
we don't use artificial additives in any of our dishes.
- Through clean, clear tea and healthy food that allow humans and nature to coexist
We are doing our best to create a better food culture.
What Nokyaweon does:
- We produce and sell clean and clear, naturally fermented Puer tea.
- We produce and sell our own (Korean) eco-friendly Puer tea.
- We teach about and serve clean, wholesome traditional Puer tea. Know your food.
- We help to make good habits by emphasizing the importance of tea and food for human health.
- We share and spread the taste and beauty of traditional Korean food.
- We share Korean culture through international cultural exchanges and other volunteer opportunities."
For those who found that part a little wordy, here's the menu:
- Jeongsik (set meal) with rice steamed inside of a lotus leaf: 20k (tea included)
- Brown rice healthy set meal with tea: 15k (pictured above)
- Bibimbap: 10k
- Cold noodles with young radish leaf and fruit:10k
- Duck Bulgogi: 20k
- Red pepper paste bulgogi: 20k
- Roast turkey: 20k
- Steamed mushrooms: 10k
Sound good? Interested in visiting the restaurant, meeting the family, and learning a thing or two about tea? Nokyaweon is open for lunch and dinner every day except Sunday. Reservations aren't necessary. Nokyaweon is located on the east side of Chilgok, north of Unamji lake and south of Hamji park, in a smallsih alley across the street from the Greenville 4 Danji apartments. The closest bus stops are Buyeong 7 Danji (939), Greenville 4 Danji (939, Chilgok 1-1), and Unam Elemetary School (Chilgok 1-1, Rapid Bus 2). Even so, it's a bit hard to find, so have a look at the Green Guide map before setting out.
Mrs. Kim and Family