Friday, July 23, 2010
월배 채식 솔내 식당 / Weolbae Vegetarian Sol-nae Restaurant
Restaurant: 월배 채식 솔내 식당 / Weolbae Vegetarian Restaurant, Sol-nae
Location: 월배역 / Weolbae Subway Station, Exit 1, immediately on the right.
Type of Restaurant: Traditional Korean Jeongsik (rice with lots of sides) and bibimbap.
Meat?: Fish (흑태) comes as a side and can also be ordered as a main. Mushroom pancakes have egg coating. Soybean paste soup has anchovy broth but no pork or beef bits. Otherwise, vegetarian- and vegan-friendly.
Price: W8,000 for one person, cheaper for groups.
Hours: Monday to Saturday, Noon till ten. Sundays off unless reservations are made in advance.
English: Enough to take your order and customize a little, if need be.
I showed up on a whim at about five till noon one Saturday morning. The owner, Choi Byoung Kwan (최병관) was playing with the pumpkin vines that climb all over the restaurant's façade. He ushered me in to the empty restaurant, where two women were going about the morning chores, wiping down the tables and dusting the window sills. He brought me a vase of nice, cold barley water, and checked to see whether or not I wanted a side of fish with my Jeongsik. I said no thanks, and he yelled to the cook to give me an extra-large portion of porridge to make up for it.
Out came the meal:
I was a little dismayed at the quantity of fried food (green pepper tempura and mushrooms with egg batter) and the lack of fresh vegetables, but was happy to see a side salad with some jellyish strips and interesting dressing. And of course, nobody ever complains about a nice side of Jabchae:
When I thought I was about two thirds of the way through, he came back, with what looked like enough food for another entire meal.
I double-checked to make sure I hadn't ordered two portions; he laughed it off and told me to enjoy the meal. The kimchi was better than lots of others I've had, though I can't quite put my finger on why. The soybean paste soup, filled to the brim with spongy tofu cubes, had a nice, deep, thick kind of feel to it. But what really made the meal was the ssamjang (that little bowl of chunky red sauce on the upper left), which hit just the right balance of sweet, salty, and spicy. Plop a bit of rice inside a sesame leaf, squish on some ssamjang, cover it with tofu and some lightly dressed onions, greens, or cucumbers and bell peppers, wad it up, and try to fit it all in your mouth. It's better with friends, but good enough even if you're alone.
As the meal wound down, he offered me my choice of coffee or green tea. I opted for the later, and drank it alongside the crispy, honey-dipped nurungji (the rice that gets stuck to the bottom of the pan, or a dish made out of said stuff) that I had saved for last.
Then things got interesting. Actually, when he served me the barley water, I had asked if he had time to have a little chat with me, explaining that I was trying to put NoksaekSari together and that I'd like to let people know about environmentally friendly eating options around the city. He seemed a little squeamish at first, but as a finished my tea and snack, he plopped down across from me. Before I could even think of how an interview was supposed to be done, Choi had begun his tirade. Or at least, that's what someone watching from the outside might have called it. Being in full agreement, though, I considered it more of a "State of the Nation" address, from the viewpoint of a humble restaurant owner trying to do his best by the environment.
(The following quotations are most likely a little bit out of order, and the translations are slightly inaccurate - he was speaking in Korean and I wasn't taking notes or asking for clarification - but everything I've reproduced was said at some point during the discussion and is a faithful and honest representation of Choi's views)
Choi: "I serve fish here because if I don't, nobody will come. People need to have some meat, or else they don't feel full. Even as it is, business is terrible. Look, it's 1 o'clock on a Saturday and there's only one customer."
Mike: "How long have you been in business?"
Choi: (consults with the cook). 8 years. But I haven't earned a dime. In 8 years, I haven't earned a dime. I'm hungry [makes a sad face and rubs his stomach.] You know the soybean paste soup you just ate? You know why it tastes so special? It's made with beans grown here in Korea. If it weren't for an old lady I know, we wouldn't be able to make it."
Mike: "You mean it's a traditional recipe?"
Choi: "No, I mean all the other beans come from China. Korea's too small, nobody has space to grow beans. Anyone who does just eats them themselves. These domestic beans cost five times what Chinese ones do! Five times. But you know what? The Chinese beans come on a boat. And to make it through the voyage, they have to be treated. With preservatives. Chemicals. And then they sit for five or ten days. It ruins the taste. I won't buy them. If the old lady stops providing me with beans, what can I do? As it is now, this soup is five times more expensive. I don't make any money."
Mike: "Yeah, Korea's a small country, with lots of forest land and tons of people. There's just not enough space. Is everything else domestic too? There's a sign on the wall that says the rice is..."
Choi: Yes, everything is from Korea. I wanted to put that up on the wall, but I haven't had the chance. That's why everything is so expensive, why I can't make any money. If I raise the price to 10 dollars a serving, people won't come, or they'll ask for more. They'll say 'Why are the portions so small? Give me more soup.' I'll give it to them, and then they won't even finish it. I have to throw it all away. People are greedy now.
Mike: "Food is so cheap everywhere. I don't think people realize what it really costs. Or maybe some people know, but they intentionally forget."
Choi: "They don't understand. It's driving me out of business. I'm hungry! I don't know how long I can keep it up. I can't even pay my staff right. Luckily, I'm a bit of a realtor. I own this property. Now there's a department store next door and the value is going up. So it's OK if the store doesn't make it.
Mike: "You'll sell the land?"
Choi: "No, I'll rent it, and then, maybe in a few years, who knows, I can open up again."
Mike: "Are you a vegetarian? Why did you open a vegetarian restaurant?"
Choi: "No, I eat everything. But I don't eat a whole lot of meat. I mostly eat vegetables When I was young, in a country like ours, we could eat meat once or twice a year. At Seol-nal (New Year's, in February), and at Chuseok (Harvest Festival, in the fall). That was it. Actually, when I was young, I raised cows. I had about twenty of them. They walked around on the fields and ate grass. Now, they're in little places like this [gesiculates, shows being squeezed into a pen]. They're supposed to eat grass, then they're healthy. But now they eat corn and food designed just for them. It kills their stomachs."
Mike: "Their food is also filled with fatteners and antibiotics. It doesn't make them healthy, and it probably doesn't make us healthy. That's one reason I become a vegetarian, I didn't like the cruelty of animal farms."
Choi: "The cruelty is terrible. I think it's OK to eat meat if you raise the animal yourself and look after it. But nobody does that. I used to keep chickens. Know how many eggs a chicken will lay in a year, in natural settings? 30. In chicken farms, they make them lay 300. So natural eggs are ten times more expensive. Plus, free-range chickens move around a lot, they eat twice as much. Twenty times more expensive. And they need more land, which is expensive and pushes up the farmer's costs. So the price of a real egg from a chicken living naturally is, maybe, close to a dollar. For 3 dollars, you can get 30 factory eggs. Who's going to buy the real egg?"
Mike: "That's all true. There are even some eggs in the middle - you know, not quite so cheap, supposedly better for the chickens. There are pictures of happy birds, and the box says they're fed green tea or pomegranates [this is a real trend in Korean eggs - enhanced nutrition by way of feeding chickens miracle foods], but I don't believe any of it."
Choi: "The problem is people. Nobody is interested in these things. They're greedy. They just want to eat.
Mike: "I think advertising has a lot to do with it too..."
Choi: "I thought about advertising, but it's so expensive. You have to buy a big sign, and then pay for the electricity, or the TV ads. To afford it, I'd have to raise the price of the food, and then nobody would come."
Mike: "Only big companies can afford to run advertisements. Actually, I trust places like this a lot more, places with no money to spend on TV ads or anything. Much more likely to have local connections and to be considering more than just money. I don't trust ads that tell me how happy the animals are or how good things are for me."
Choi: "Someone has to do something about this. One person can't to much, but someone has to do something."
Mike: "I guess. That's sort of what I'm hoping for with this group. I don't know. Anyway, it was sort of a depressing conversation, but I'm glad to have met someone who thinks like you do. It was really nice to talk to you."
Choi: "It's not depressing. You should be happy." [Big smile]
Mike: "Right. I'll do my best." [Shake hands, exchange names, get his business card, approach the register.]
Choi: "No need to pay."
Mike: "You said business was bad..."
Mike: "Alright, I'll become a regular costumer and try to bring people here every so often until you go under."
Choi: "Yes, thanks."
Choi and the waitresses bashfully refuse to be in a picture. On my way out, I asked if any pumpkins were growing yet. He grimaced, having already gone on for half an hour about social changes that were making his life harder and harder, and told me that any pumpkin that grows to about the size of a fist generally gets stolen pretty soon after. The only ones that get the chance to develop into full-size Halloween monstrosities are the ones that grow on the roof. I tell him I'll be back to check on them soon.
Directions and Landmarks
Solnae is located in the Southwest part of the Daegu, The easiest way is to come by subway. Take the red line to 월배 Weolbae (11 stops away from Banwoldang, going towards Daegok) and get out at exit number one. The restaurant is immediately on your right.
If you're in a car, in a bus, on a bike, or on foot, and coming from the center of the city, the big Sang-in homeplus is a useful landmark. It's about halfway between Sang-in station and Weolbae station. (If you're coming from Daegok, and you see this home plus, double back!)
And a google map:
View Larger Map
Address: 대구 달서구 진천동 51-7
Phone Number: 053-637-5432
Website 1: http://www.solnae.net
Website 2: http://www.greenkorea.org (English)