This was the first and only restaurant that got a Michelin star for ganjang gejang. The rest can only claimed Bib Gourmand.
Like all non fine dining restaurants that made the star, Keunkiwajip‘s ascension to stardom was surrounded by criticism and controversy, from why ganjang gejang can be a criteria for entry to the prestigious guidebook. Like what the owner said, they didn’t ask for the limelight; they had a good business even before this recognition.
For some unknown reason, they fell out of favour with the Michelin inspectors, going from 1 Star to not a mention after they got it for two consecutive year. But their popularity was not dependent on this guidebook. Even after the removal of the star, they continued to be the poster child for being the first to land the star with the humble national dish. Just look at this queue at 1.30pm; I thought I was smart to skip lunchbreak.
They stop for a break (like many restaurants in Seoul) between 3-5pm, so they stopped the queue to cater that. I was lucky to be the last on this queue. There wasn’t much on the menu and so I have made my decision while queueing.
Finally at 2pm, I managed to get into the restaurant and got my seat about 15min later. I was very lucky to get a private section in a private dining room that was partitioned into two. I really liked these metal utensils I have been using in Seoul; mental note to self, buy some home next time.
I assumed that this would be my only time here, I decided to order what I would like to have instead of just ordering one set for myself. As usual it came with a variety of banchan (refillable), rice and soup. When it all came together, I knew I was in trouble – how can I finish everything?
간장게장 Raw crabs marinated in soy sauce
They got their Michelin star through this dish. Their ganjang gejang is made with proprietary soy sauce that has been fermented for at least 10 years. In fact, The owner Han Young-yong attributed its selection of the restaurant to the fresh local crabs and the soy sauce marinade. The family has been making this soy sauce in-house for over 100 years.
Although first mentioned in a 17th-century book covering the diet and recipes of the Joseon Dynasty, this folk dish has an even longer history and has remained one of the country’s representative fermented dishes. An abundant harvest of blue crabs and diverse local ingredients, coupled with the advancement of food preservation, has helped Korea’s southwestern coastal region develop a range of crab marinating recipes. A transition from salt marination to soy sauce marination has allowed ganjang-gejang to become a popular national food.
This should be how all crab are to be eaten. The crab shell has soften and you can simply suck everything out. The mild saltiness of the soy sauce, combined with the condensed sweetness of the crab meat as it loses water during the marination, as well as the petrification of the roe which made it jelly-like; all made it a really delicious bite.
This is my favourite part of the crab, the back shell with all the roe in it. You can see that this is a piece of really well-marinated crab, the roe are still orangey and the organs are still distinctly visible. Most of the ones we get in Singapore are darkened with the prolonged marination.
The traditional way to eat this is to scoop some rice onto the roe with some marinade. And then you mix everything together.
No wonder they called this dish the “rice killer”. The saltiness as well as the umami of the crab just make you can’t stop.
홍어삼합 Raw rotten skate fish wrap
I heard so much about this dish, and this was the first time I tried it. Called hongeo samhap 홍어삼합, it is made with fermented skate fish; as horrible as it sounds, it is actually much vile than anything I have ever tasted. I can imagined this is how the famous Icelandic kæstur hákarl or the Finnish surströmming would be.
Putting the smell side, the fish is appreciated for its chewiness. Due the fermentation, its texture is more chewy than that of raw fish. But the stinging taste is unique. After finishing a piece of hongeo, one’s mouth stinks due to the revolting ammonia content of the decaying ocean-floor fish. Didn’t help with the brine shrimp dip that tasted like chinchalok (ferment krill).
Koreans typically enjoy hongeo with steamed pork belly and over ripe kimchi, known as hongeo samhap, with “samhap” meaning “gathering of three”. The texture of pork and smell of kimchi hide the presence of the fermented fish, though not to complete success. The five-spice in the dwaejibossam or boiled pork belly made the combination more palatable. The bossam here was actually quite good. So it would be nice next time to just order the bossam; skip the hongeo.
All the sets come with the banchan and the selection is dependent on what’s available that day. Even though there’s so much banchan to go around, the rule of thumb is still to order one set per person. They don’t make money by selling you plain rice. Among the side dishes, I enjoyed the stewed beef brisket with quail egg, the pickled white wood fungus, the fish intestines, and of course the kimchis. In fact, everything was nice.
And all sets also come with doenjang-jjigae, the hearty soup made from soybean paste with some vegetables like zucchini and radish. Rather runny but still flavourful.
Though the service can be rough and not so polite at times, you can’t blame them as they are constantly busy. The delicious food and authentic atmosphere make Keunkiwajip a fine dining spot worth visiting. Outdoor seating is not available, but the quaint interior and warm hospitality more than make up for it.
Overall, Keunkiwajip is a great place to experience authentic Korean cuisine and indulge in the delicacy of marinated soy raw crab. Reservation not possible unless you can speak Korean 😉
Keunkiwajip 큰기와집 (大瓦房)
20-7 Bukchon-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Tel : 02-722-9024
Visited Mar 2023
Michelin Seoul Guide 1 Star 2017, 2018
#keunkiwajip #ganjanggejang #MichelinSeoul