I had been planning to get to Andong for the past two years, but due to various circumstances, my plans always fell through. So, you can imagine my excitement when I was given the chance this past weekend to travel there on a culinary tour- a first for me- with O'ngo Food Communications, the leader of food tours and cooking classes in Korea. The tour was also sponsored by MBC, who filmed the entirety of the journey for an upcoming documentary on the cuisine of Andong, and Big Farm, a company that aims to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas in Korea.
Our day started bright and early in Itaewon, where we boarded our stylish bus and began the three and a half hour drive to Andong. We had a few guides from O'ngo and Big Farm who made sure that we were comfortable and educated throughout the trip. They were extremely informative and thanks to them, I not only ate well in Andong, but I learned a lot, too.
After an extended nap, during which the camera crew no doubt obtained a generous amount of footage of me drooling or snoring or both, I woke up just in time to see the beautiful rolling hills of Gyeongsangbuk-do. It was obvious we were in farming country and it wasn't much longer before we arrived at our first stop: the Andong rest station. A rest stop on a food tour, you ask? It seemed odd to me, too, but I have to say that I was impressed with the facilities. Just earlier this year, Andong constructed a small museum/"medical cafeteria" at the location to inform travelers of the city's culture. We checked out some of the items on sale, which ranged from silks to traditional paper items. Each of the items was beautifully crafted by artists from Andong. We were also able to sample some traditional teas, including a spicy pepper tea.
The next stop was the Gyeongsangbuk-do Medical Crop Cluster Center, the headquarters of all things related to Korean medical herbs. Andong, with its ideal geography and climate for agriculture, produces the majority of the medicinal crops of the country. We learned a bit more about the health benefits of various crops and how some of them are incorporated into various foods and dishes, like samgyetang (ginseng soup). We were also introduced to ma, a medicinal root used for stamina (what isn't in Korea?) and weight loss (the root is apparently a component of idol group Girl Generation's diet). We would be hearing about this root a lot more throughout the day.
Jesa are Confucian ceremonies held to honor one's ancestors on their deaths or during special holidays like Chuseok. During these ceremonies, special foods are prepared which are to only be consumed by the ghosts of the ancestors. It is common knowledge in Korea that ghosts do not like strong flavors, so these ceremonial dishes are prepared without garlic or spices. As such, heotjesabap consists of a bibimbap like dish of rice and vegetables that is prepared without spicy condiments and instead uses soy sauce for flavoring.
Our heotjesabap was also served with jeon (Korean pancakes), fish, mugwort rice cakes, soup, fruit, and a variety of vegetable banchan (side dishes.) Although I usually prefer my food with a kick (extra gochujang, please), the meal was delicious. The ingredients were fresh and though the flavors were a bit on the bland side, they worked nicely together. The atmosphere was perfect and it was obvious that everyone on the tour enjoyed their meals.