4 (Sat) December 2010
at Wonjo Busan Agu
-Nonhyeon, Gangnam, Seoul, Korea-
with the Family, In-Laws
Agu jjim is a Korean dish. Monkfish (agu) – “agwi“ (아귀) is supposedly the proper spelling and can be commonly seen on signs and menus, though I’ve never heard anyone pronouncing it as such – with bean sprouts braised in gochujang. According to legend, the monkfish caught by Korean fisherman in the East Sea were once discarded as being too hideous to eat. (The livers, on the other hand, were harvested and shipped to Japan, where they were and continue to be prized as a delicacy called ankimo.) Until one fateful day, sometime in the mid-1970s, at a time when food in Korea wasn’t entirely abundant, an enterprising restaurant owner in the Korean port city of Masan came up with this dish, which didn’t showcase the fish as much as it buried the fish under piles of sprouts and gobs of sauce. And so it goes, the perhaps apocryphal though much beloved origin story. A small platter, usually priced at 30,000 won and serving 2, provides about 2-3 pieces of fish per person, mostly rubbery skin and cartilage, and a whole lot of bean sprouts – not exactly cheap, especially for a dish that’s one step beyond the refuse pile. After the fish and bean sprouts are consumed, the remaining sauce is often mixed with steamed rice and dried laver to make a kind of fried rice, which some would consider the highlight of the meal.
Wonjo Busan Agu is a Korean restaurant. Specializes in agu jjim. Serves the best I’ve ever had. Actually, it’s not what they do that sets them ahead of the pack but rather what they don’t do, which is that they don’t add unnecessary amounts of chili powder in their sauce. It’s hot but not fiery, perfectly balanced, allowing for delectation without perspiration. (I maintain that any cook who resorts to intense heat probably does so to overwhelm and therefore distract the diner from the dish’s other failings.) It’s a hole in the wall, with a capacity of maybe 30 at most. The restaurant also serves their signature rice balls, as shown in the photo, which they swear is nothing but dried seaweed and steamed rice but must have something else in them, because they’re too good to be that simple.
Anytime after 6:30 PM, the crowds will already have amassed, requiring a wait of an hour or more. 3 other agu jjim restaurants are situated in the same alley, 2 next door to the left, 1 to the right, which are always completely empty. Impatience once prompted an ill-advised venture into one of those other places. Wonjo Busan Agu is worth the wait.