Gut Check @ Sundae Ilbeonji

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“If you eat a pig, you better eat it all” is what I would say to a group of children (or adults) if I was to play some kind of advocacy role for whole-beast eating. Or better yet, the phrase could be the moral of a story, likely a scary one told over flashlight in the dark about a vengeful ghost hog who’s aggrieved that folks didn’t properly enjoy its liver. “It’s r-e-s-p-e-c-t for the a-n-i-m-a-l”, the kids would awkwardly sing along.

At 순대일번지 (Sundae Ilbeonji), as with the best sundae places, your blood sausage soup is complimented with all manner of pig parts, truly nose-to-tail eating. In fact, for me, the sundae is a secondary pleasure behind all the exciting other bits: heart, lung, liver, ear, nose, intestine, and counting.

This long-running restaurant, perched on a corner along a busy four-lane road near Mangwon Station and heading south towards Hapjeong, has been stuffing makchang sundae for 26 years. Makchang is the last stop of the pig’s intestinal tract, and only one out of a hundred places will use it as a wrapper for their sausage. It makes for a chewier exterior and by far a larger sausage in circumference than the sundae communia you’re much more likely to see. Why is it so rare compared to other sundae? Maybe people are put off by it being the end of the line in the pig’s guts, but besides that, it’s still all just dead animal flesh isn’t it? If anything is going to repel you from eating, it should be that one simple fact: you’re eating a dead thing.

On a frigid January afternoon, the kind where your nose is constantly leaking, I was sat at the only available table and what turned out to be the perfect one – a worn wooden study desk of a dining location, facing only the kitchen and ensconced by the wall on my left and the drinks cooler partially obscuring me from the kitchen workers in front. If made to consider the texture of pig’s ear, my seat was the equivalent of a solo study carrel buried deep in the bowels of a near-deserted university library.

The reason I was so thankful for this seat is that eating alone in Korea can be unnerving for many. I’m too self-conscious about my foreignness or of taking up valuable real estate, which is not usualy made for being solo, during a restaurant’s busy period. I was once sat at the end of a long table mostly filled with middle-aged women except for the chair immediately across from me. I had never slurped down a bowl of kalguksu with more urgency than I did that day, and I hope my impromptu dining partners were left with the positive impression that foreigners really love their noodles. These issues of social pressure still resonate with me anytime I think about eating lunch alone in a Korean restaurant. However, this table on this day, with its seclusion, should be a standard option in every restaurant that allows solo diners, those engaging in honbap (literally “solo rice”) dining, to peacefully consider their food and not stare eye-to-eye with a stranger or feel the pressure of occupying a too-large table because it was the only place to sit.

The interior of Sundae Ilbeonji (translated as “First Round Blood Sausage”) is well lived-in. Perfectly balanced white porcelain bowls and gray mounds of offal all have their distinct locations and orientations much like bric-a-brac in the home of a long-married couple. The menu items all derive from each other: blood sausage soup, communal intestine soup, plate of mixed pig parts. That is all, folks – a snake eating its tail, the circle of life.

The sundaeguk here is served with a substantial amount of fresh sesame leaf already in the roiling bowl that is delivered to your table, a touch I’d never encountered before. A nice man working there spoke English to me off-the-bat telling me their soup was a little unusual being made with the sesame leaves. I appreciated the effort, but little did he know that I may be in the top 3 all-time foreigner ranking for consumed bowls of wild sesame noodle soup. And again, although I’m thankful for the ease of communication in English, I hate to stand out in that manner, so I reverted to Korean to order my coke, err…co-la, the fizz of which is an essential compliment to the sometimes dulling offal meatiness of the sundaeguk.

The pieces of makchang sundae were large enough to eclipse my spoon and excavating them from underneath all the now-wilting sesame leaves and substantial shards of innards became a fun task. I’d dump them in the shallow serving dish to cool off before loading on top a few salted, fermented baby shrimp (sae-u-jeot) or giving it a drag through the ssamjang. As much as possible, every piece of offal was cut in proportion to the large pieces of sundae, a fact both admirable and one which made eating awkward as the too small spoon was usually an ineffective tool for extracting pieces of the meat slabs.

Aside from a rare experience of being able to have makchang sundae, the other part of this meal that got my heart racing was the appearance of a lone death pepper, the skinny, green, slightly wrinkly witch’s finger of a pepper that brought all sorts of memories flooding back. In my first year of Korean living, in Ulsan, I’d stop into a 24-hour taxi driver sundaeguk oasis on my walk home from drinking in Mugeo-dong. There would inevitably be two pepper – one mild and one devilishly, hatefully spicy. Having narrowed down the choice with two exploratory chomps, I would take the green death pepper as an affront and a cure, a challenge to my tastebuds and ability to achieve greater sobriety. I don’t see them as much anymore, maybe because I’m just not frequenting the right places and/or because the world is a different place than it was in 2010.

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