Every so often the elements conspire to throw a meal at you that surpasses mere mastication and enters the realm of the truly memorable. Few and far between, these meals usually rely as much on location, company and conversation as they do on food, and can be elusive prey even for the ever-conscious food freak.
On Saturday however, the planets were definitely aligned as a few friends and I ventured into the mountains at the back of our apartment building, ostensibly to get some exercise, but really to do a little good old-fashioned Saturday afternoon eating and drinking. With this in mind our real goal for the day was a goat restaurant by one nestled by one of the old gates that used to guard a fortress from the Japanese, but now serve as a focal point for some of the many hiking trails that criss-cross the hills like ancient pig runs.
As anyone who has ever done any hiking in Korea will attest, it can be a somewhat different experience to the activity we have gotten used to in the West. Instead, hiking in Korea generally involves a lot of Soju, some food and plenty of good cheer, often accompanied by a soundtrack of jangly Korean pseudo-folk music from a backpack-mounted Ghetto Blaster. This colourful tribe of Teflon-suited hikies can get overexcited at the sight of a foreigner, making any hiking experience more like a visit to a geriatric nightclub than a quiet walk in the woods.
Our journey took us upwards through conifer and deciduous forest until Busan was only a distant hum below us, exposing a cityscape framed by the white sails of Gwangli bridge to the South and the sprawling tributaries and flatland of the _ river f to the North. As expected the hiking fraternity was out in force, by and large good natured and friendly, with the exception of one gentleman who saw fit to admonish a female member of our party for smoking a cigarette in public!
We forged ahead nevertheless and it was with creeping hunger and dwindling Soju that we finally arrived at the goat restaurant, a modest collection of bungalow-sized buildings housing a number of sparsely decorated private rooms. We settled into one of these and waited for our food to arrive.
This being Korea it didn’t take long and the table was soon crowded with several enticing banchan and accompanying condiments. Among these a salad of fresh crisp lettuce leaf dressed in a spicy chilli and garlic oil made rich pickings and a bowl of al-dente sweet potato also stood out. On this occasion the ubiquitous Kimchi was a touch too fermented for my taste, but was highly appreciated by a few of my companions. Elsewhere on the table a paejon (seafood pancake) was light and eggy, concealing springy pieces of octopus tentacle and reedy spring onions – the type of dish soy sauce was made for.
Before long however, the goat arrived and things began to get serious. Still smoking from the grill outside, the meat retained all the aroma and appearance of having just been seared to perfection, betraying just enough of the heat of the grill to be blackening and smoky in parts whilst remaining tender in all the right places. Cut up into bite-sized pieces it was excellent wrapped in sesame leaf and smeared with Samjung, (red chilli paste) but more often than not I found myself returning to eat it just as it was: musky, flavoursome, glorious and goaty. For refreshment a few bowls of mountain Dong Dong Ju, (a type of home brewed rice wine with a dry, almost savory taste) proved more than adequate and the perfect accompaniment.
By the time we’d finished it was dark and our hostess kindly called us a taxi. As we snaked our way back down the mountain towards the bright lights of Busan, I looked up at the stars and gave thanks to the Gods of good food, company and happiness. For it doesn’t get much better than this.