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Saturday, 4 January 2014

Nagwon-dong, Seoul Jongno-gu: Heaven of Rice Cakes and Braised Spicy Blackmouthed Anglers

Wriggle is gorgeous while wearing Hanbok. 
Nagwon-dong (Hanja: 樂園洞) is a district in Seoul Jongno-gu, Republic of Korea and traditionally known as the Heaven Precinct. It is a legal precinct (법정동 法定洞) governed under its administrative precinct (행정동 行政洞), Jongno 1, 2, 3, 4 ga-dong. The postal code for this precinct is 110-320

This precinct was formed in 1396 during 4th year of King Taejo Yi Seong-gye of Joseon Dynasty that covered the areas of Gyeonghaeng-bang (경행방/慶幸坊), Jeongseon-bang (정선방/貞善坊) and Gwanin-bang (관인방/寬仁坊). Later in 1894, the precincts of Donggu-dong, Eoeui-dong, Gyodong, Handong, Wondong, Tapdong and Judong were consolidated into Nagwon-dong precinct during the Gabo Reformation.

Nagwon-dong was an area originally famous for its tteok (rice cake) stores. At that time there were only a couple of agwi-jjim restaurants in the alley, and most of their customers were people who came to the alley foremost to purchase tteok. But through these tteok customers, people gradually found out about the delicious agwi-jjim restaurants in the alley and soon more and more agwi-jjim restaurants opened up.  

This precinct is accessible by using either KORAIL-Seoul Metro Lines 1 and 3 and SMRT Line 5 to Jongno 3-ga Station (Station: 130/329/534).


Agwi-jjim? Sounds delicious.... I think so.
"Agwi-jjim" means "braised blackmouth angler (monkfish)", "agwi" meaning blackmouth angler (monkfish) and "jjim" meaning braised or steamed. Agwi-jjim is also commonly referred to as "agu-jjim", because "agu" is the way this fish's name is pronounced in the province of Southern Gyeongsang, where the dish first originated. In fact, agwi-jjim is the representative dish of Changwon Masan-gu. This is why many agwi-jjim restaurants, whether they are located in Masan or not, will include the word "Masan" in the name of their restaurants.

The agwi fish, or monkfish, wasn't always popular as a food item. The agwi fish is not the most attractive fish in the sea. In fact, due to its ugly appearance, many fishermen would either throw the fish back into the sea or only use it for fertilizer. But in the 1950s when times were tough and many other varieties of fish were scarce, a fisherman decided that it was too much of a waste to discard a fish that was so abundantly available just because it was so ugly, and decided to ask an old lady who owned a restaurant to try and create a tasty dish from the ugly fish. And that is when the fish first became a food source.       

According to the first agwi-jjim restaurant, "Odong-dong Agu Halmaejip", agwi-jjim was first made by braising dried fish, but because the fish was too tough, kongnamul (bean sprouts) were added because of their high water content and that is how the agwi-jjim dish we are familiar with today was born.    

The agwi fish is low in fat and calories and an excellent source of protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids. The skin of the fish also has its own health benefits, mainly as an excellent source of collagen, which helps to prevent wrinkles and helps improve skin. 

It's not for certain whether the old woman, who opened the first agwi-jjim restaurant in this alley over 40 years ago, has great skin because of this fish, but she sure doesn't look like most 72-year-olds! 

Unlike the agwi-jjim in Masan where the fish is dried beforehand, awgi-jjim in Seoul is usually served with "fresh agwi". When agwi is not dried beforehand, the meat is much softer and provides more nutrition, making this style of agwi more popular with Seoulites. Agwi-jjim restaurant owners in Seoul purchase fresh fish every morning at the fish markets in Garak-dong and Noryangjin, along with stalked sea squirt, bean sprouts, minari (water dropwort plant). To this gochugaru (red chili pepper flakes), garlic and other seasonings are added in a big pot which is cooked over a large flame. Some agwi-jjim restaurants may include too many bean sprouts to the point where you wonder whether you're eating a bean sprout dish instead of a fish dish, but you don't have to worry about that at any of the restaurants in this alley. 

An ingredient that no agwi-jjim dish can be made without is the stalked sea squirt. To eat this sea squirt, you bite down on it while it is in your mouth to release the juices inside, then discard the rest. Many people are caught off guard with the explosion of juices that comes from biting down on sea squirt, so be careful when its your first time!

Agwi-jjim is popular as a meal or as a dish to snack on while drinking. It's popular with office workers out for happy hour and with families enjoying a meal out of the house, so much so that long lines out the door are a common occurance.

If you're still feeling hungry after all the agwi-jjim is gone, you can add an order of fried rice to the leftover agwi-jjim marinade and juices. Enjoying some rice topped with seaweed flakes and flying fish roe which has been stir-fried in the agwi-jjim marinade is absolutely a must.