Transitions commence new adventures. Make 'em last…
Andong is by far the most unhurried, peaceful, and friendliest town that I’ve visited during my 3.5+ years in South Korea. The open kindness and peacefulness baffled not only me, but Michelle as well; we were both taken aback on several occasions. Michelle and I encountered the most amiable Korean strangers amid various occurrences around town – either from super kind shop, hostel, and restaurant owners that went above and beyond to locate specific items, gregarious taxi drivers that loved small talk and assisted with every request, and kind town citizens that frequently said hello in the street and stopped by our restaurant dinner table to offer shots of soju and a greeting. This overly cordial behavior is somewhat hard to come by in Seoul, and it’s perhaps because Andong is a small cultural town in the deep country that is not burdened by the weight and loftiness of a big city. However, it’s more than that. In comparison to other small Korean towns I’ve visited, Andong is quite special and definitely triumphs in genuinely treating others like cherished family. And while I honestly ate the best Korean food I’ve ever tasted in Andong, the people and placid ambiance of the town are what stand out to me the most.
After a long week, Michelle and I were both very sleepy on the super early train ride to Andong and we attempted to nap a little on the way. When we arrived roughly around 11am, we headed to Mammoth Bakery – a long-standing locally-famous bakery that specializes in various pastries and roll cakes.
I quickly opted for some freshly baked cinnamon rolls and custard danishes that truly provided a taste of home. I hadn’t had such a good cinnamon roll in quite a long time and I was greatly pleased.
Immediately after having our morning snack, Michelle gestured she wanted lunch, so we took a walk through downtown toward where I knew there would be some jjimdak (찜닥) restaurants. Jimdak is a Korean dish that originated in Andong, and is by far my most favorite Korean food. After double-backing the famous “jjimdak area” of downtown where there are multitudinous jjimdak restaurants, we eyed one that looked particularly peaceful and had a friendly, comforting lady that was running the place on her own. She was very kind and made the best jjimdak Michelle and I had ever tasted.
Jjimdak is simply boiled chicken and noodles with various vegetables in a Korean soy sauce based sauce. Essentially, how it is made is by adding pieces of chicken, whole garlic, onions, ginger, and a fresh green Korean chili pepper called cheongyang gochu (청양 고추) altogether in a pot. This particular pepper is famous for its extreme spiciness and plays and important role in adding a kick to the dish. The cooked chicken is simmered with a sauce made from Korean soy sauce, sesame oil, and other syrup-like condiments, in addition to sugar and pepper, and then sliced shittake mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables are added into the pot and mixed and boiled for about 10 minutes. Amid cooking, wheat flour, spinach, sliced cucumber, cabbage, scallions, and water-soaked cellophane noodles are added. After cooking, the dish is typically served on a large plate and further seasoned with sesame seeds. Ah…. it makes my mouth water just by looking at these photos above.
After being stuffed to brim with delicious jjimdak, in addition to somewhat reluctantly drinking a few shots of soju that a super kind older gentleman had offered me in the restaurant, Michelle and I thought it was best to check-in at the hostel we had booked in advance and take a quick rest. Gotaya Guesthouse, with its spacious separate dorm rooms for men and women, very open social area, super cordial owners, and close proximity to downtown, served our needs quite well; it was a delight to stay here and I’d recommend this hostel to anyone passing through Andong.
Many hostel guests were geared for the 100+ minute drive to the famous, large cultural folk village outside of Andong. I was initially interested in going there, but once I realized how tired I was and that it was quite far from the city, I thought it best to just visit the other cultural folk village on the outskirts of town next to the river where there would be a multitude of blooming cherry blossom trees. Michelle, a bit tired as well, concurred with this decision.
After resting for a short while, we headed to the nearby cultural folk village along the Nakdong river. It was pretty cool, but Michelle and I both found other things that appealed to us much more.
We found a large swing and Michelle was in heaven. She was immediately enthralled by the swing as it seemed to bring back pleasant memories from her childhood. She later mentioned that this was one of her favorite moments during our short trip to Andong.
I, on the other hand, was immediately taken by the beauty of the line of blooming cherry blossom trees along the river, and if the sky would have been clear, it would have made quite an aesthetic contrast. Although, I was content enough with how wonderful it was and had a pleasant time enjoying the delightful and delicate flowers that will soon be gone in a few weeks.
Later in the evening, Michelle and I went to a local restaurant near the river that specialized in Andong bibimbap (aka. heotjesabap). Instead of infusing bibimbap with the common red chili sauce, Andong bibimbap is infused with a soy sauce based sauce. If you don’t know already, I absolutely love soy sauce rather than any spicy sauce, so I was in heaven and I found this to be the best bibimbap I’ve ever tasted.
In addition, we paired our bibimbap with some Andong soju, which is completely different than the normal, low-quality soju that is found everywhere in South Korea. Andong soju tasted like choice Japanese sake and I found it to be quite pleasant. I would drink this over regular soju any day. While the Andong soju we tried was 40 proof, there are also 70 proof and 90 proof varieties available. The 40 proof Andong soju was strong enough and I wouldn’t dare to stomach the 90 proof, lest I burn a hole in my stomach.
Later in the evening Michelle and had a great time singing at a noraebang together for the first time. Michelle was quite the singer, whereas I can hardly keep a steady tune. However, I sang “West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys fairly well. After singing, it was of course time for some late-night dessert.
The following morning we simply walked around town, window-shopped a little, visited an old Confucian shrine, and returned to Mammoth bakery for some more delicious pastries. The town was very quiet and harmonious and we felt quite rested during our stroll.
When it came time to have lunch before we’d depart on a train back to Seoul, we found the most popular place to get Andong salted fried mackerel.
I’m normally not fond of fried fish, but this was absolutely fantastic. I was supremely surprised on how good this fish tasted.
Andong’s mackerel is known for it’s grand succulence, as well as it’s saltiness. Historically, since Andong is located far from the sea, salting fish was necessary to preserve fish for as long as possible. Now, though fish is readily available, salting fish still remains a traditional culinary custom that many people enjoy. Andong mackerel is served in a variety of different ways, from pan-fried, steamed, and roasted. Since it’s saturated with a generous amount of salt, it’s recommended to eat with copious amounts of rice.
Andong was particularly special, not only for it’s food, but also for its very kind people that helped to make our short stay very pleasant. Andong is definitely on my list to return to again sometime in the near future.