Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hee-Rak - Seoul, Korea (Namdaemun Market)

I used to have no clue where this place was because my mom would meander through the narrow and zigzagged alleys of Namdaemun Market from every which direction. It's almost like going through a rite of passage to find this tiny restaurant called Hee-Rak, which always had a long line of people waiting outside to eat galchi jorim or seasoned hairtail fish. I've heard galchi referred to as a silver belt and hairtail fish, not sure which is correct. I honestly haven't seen this fish anywhere else, but according to my grandmother, galchi only tastes good if caught in Korea. Koreans are quite patriotic about their food. =) I've only seen it served two ways: (1) salted and fried or (2) seasoned with soy sauce, red pepper and garlic in a jorim. They are quite tasty in both forms.

The ajuma cooks the galchi jorim in these old, rusty nickel pots, right outside the restaurant.

The gyeran jjim, a poached egg dish, is 4,000 won. It is basically scrambled eggs delicately poached with some sesame seeds, small pieces of green onion and carrots. The egg dish helps temper the heat from the spicy fish jorim you will also order below.

Here is their famous galchi jorim, which is 6,000 won per order. This was 2 orders worth of jorim, I believe. There are huge blocks of cooked radish on the bottom and whole pieces of kimchi cooked along with the fish. The best way to eat this is to take out the fish and put it on your plate and debone before you eat. It has a lot of bones for a small fish, so you have to invest the time to take out those suckers or it will end up caught in your throat. That has happened to me many a times and it's quite painful, so I've learned my lesson and always make sure to take out the bones first. FYI: for those unfortunate souls who fail to heed this advice and get fish bones stuck in your throat, the trick is to put a spoonful of rice in your mouth and swallow several times until the bone dislodges. Not a fun task if you ask me.

My method to getting rid of galchi bones is to take out the row of short bones on either side of the fish first. Then you can eat the meat of the fish on top till you see the single backbone. You then peel off the backbone and are left with delicate morsels to eat with the spicy and savory sauce. Equally tasty is taking a chunk of the soft and sweet radish with some spicy sauce and mixing it with your white rice and eating it. It's euphoric people, euphoric.

The menu lists several other dishes but I've never paid attention to those and if you look around, everyone orders these two dishes and nothing else. The gyeran jjim and galchi jorim are what make this small restaurant famous. Jung wanted to try the go-deung-uh (mackerel) jorim but they were sold out for the day.

It comes with some side dishes and some gim (roasted laver). It really tastes and feels like a home cooked meal. The place is surprisingly small, with only about 20 seats downstairs. There is also a tiny attic upstairs. It's quite an experience to eat up there, you should try it if you get a chance. This time we had our huge winter jackets and bags, so I didn't feel like squeezing through the narrow stairs to sit up there. Luckily there were seats downstairs so we were lucky. The attic ceiling is really low so you have to slouch the whole time until you sit down on the floor to eat. It really can't be safe to have all these people cramped up in a low ceiling attic, but clearly people don't mind because there is usually a line out the door waiting to get in.

Again, I have no clue how to get here on my own. Coming with my mom is a necessity, but I found directions online. I hope these are right. To get to Hee-Rak, leave exit 5 of Hoehyeon Station on subway line 4. Walk straight toward the middle of the Namdaemun market until you find a shop called Seoul Sang-hae on your left and an alley next to it. Walk into the alley and turn right at the first corner. Look ahead and you will find the yellow signboard that reads Hee-Rak in Korean. They are open from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday except for Sundays.

The alley where Hee-Rak is located has some 10 restaurants specializing in galchi jorim and Hee-Rak is one of the oldest and most popular restaurants. It has a strong following for a reason. It's one of my favorite places to eat just for the sheer experience.

1 comment:

  1. this place has to be better than the other joint cuz it's been featured on mbc, kbs and sbs!!! unlike the other place, which has only been featured on mbc yo!