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A love affair with blood sausages

One restaurateur’s obsession with sundae turns into stuff of life
Mar 11,2017
이미지뷰
Left: Yook Kyung-hee, CEO of Heestory Food, visits stalls selling sundae, Korean blood sausage, at Yeongdeungpo Market in western Seoul. Right: Yook learns how to make morcilla, Spanish blood sausage, at a restaurant in Madrid. [HEESTORY FOOD]
What do Barcelona, Madrid, London, Florence, Prague, Ulaanbataar and Chiang Mai have in common? They’re all cities that Heestory Food CEO Yook Kyung-hee has visited to try their local blood sausages.

Yook runs a popular restaurant in Dongsung-dong, northern Seoul, called Sundae Silrok, which serves sundae, Korea’s variation of blood sausage. She acquired the restaurant in early 2011, and ever since, she’s been obsessed with blood sausages.

“I was looking through old documents in search of real ‘traditional’ Korean sundae when I found out there was food similar to it in other countries,” she said.

Just the simple fact that sundae existed in other countries made Yook’s heart beat. Her first discovery was morcilla, the Spanish variety, and her immediate inclination was to fly to Spain to sample the dish herself.

Employees tried to persuade her out of it, saying the restaurant was a success and needed as many hands as possible.

Nonetheless, Yook booked the plane ticket to Spain. It was the start of a journey that would take her to more than 40 cities in 20 countries. Over the years, she has spent more than 300 million won ($260,000) on those trips.

Yook has compiled her travels in a book, “Sundae Silrok,” or “Sundae Chronicles,” the same name as her restaurant. It describes sundae’s history and her impressions of eight blood sausages from around the world. She also reviews 37 famous sundae restaurants in Korea.

Cho Jung-hyung, a renowned expert in traditional Korean wine, introduced the book as a “piece written with one’s feet” during a release party on Feb. 27.

“In Spain, it was mocilla; in England, it was black pudding,” Yook said. “They all had different names, but their fundamentals were the same - that process of stuffing blood into long pork intestines. It was this similarity I found most intriguing.”

Yook found that public perception of blood sausages differed greatly by country. In Korea, sundae is considered street food, whereas in London, black pudding is a traditional breakfast delicacy.

“The most widely known sundae in Korea, stuffed with glass noodles, first appeared in Japan during the early 1970s when people put noodles into pork components that were left after exporting,” Yook said. “In Korea, it became a disregarded menu after been sold on the streets and in traditional markets with a low price tag, but in fact, sundae is a food with a long tradition that even our ancestors enjoyed in the past.”

Although now a sundae expert, Yook said she never expected to run a sausage restaurant. She was a stay-at-home wife until 2003, when she started an ice cream business. In the next few years, several of her ventures failed, which was expected given her inexperience with running a business.

In 2011, Yook finally landed on sundae. The restaurant she bought was a dream location, with a lovely terrace attached, but she wouldn’t dare touch the interior because of her immense debt.

Instead, she did a quick sweep-through of the space in one night and reopened it as was with the small goal of earning enough to pay the rent.

“At first, I didn’t know how to make sundae at all, so I had to buy them from a nearby marketplace and sell them at my restaurant,” she recalled. “My real interest started when I saw people actually paying money to eat that tasteless sundae. I thought to myself: ‘If I make sundae good enough for people with a weak stomach like me, even more people will come to eat at my restaurant.’”

She made endless jaunts to famous sundae restaurants around Korea, and gradually, her curiosity shifted from how sundae was made to its history. Yook’s cooking and management ethic is to focus on the basics, so she contacted a renowned cuisine researcher who had a specialty in Korean court cuisine to unravel sundae’s origins but received no clear answer.

She went to major libraries and started looking up old documents with the words “pig” and “blood” until she found a 19th-century cooking book, the Suiuijeonseo, describing a dish with vegetables, kimchi, tofu and blood stuffed inside pig intestines.

The “traditional sundae” menu at her restaurant is based on this recipe, to which Yook added a slight twist: chives and salted shrimp. She recently succeeded in making sundae that exactly follows the process described in the Suiuijeonseo and plans to start selling it in the restaurant.

“At first, I mixed vegetables and blood 50-50, but it was impossible to eat it because it was so sloppy,” Yook said. “After many trials, I found out that blood should be 10 percent of the stuffing, and instead of steaming it like ordinary sundae, it should be fried at 80 to 90 degrees Celsius [176 to 194 degrees Fahrenheit] for two and a half hours.”

After perfecting traditional sundae, Yook shifted her focus to developing sundae that satisfies modern palates.

The restaurant’s most popular menu item, the sundae steak, was a result of this pursuit. The dish is stuffed with 28 ingredients, including nuts, and then fried on a pan.

It was a strange request given the conventional way of cooking sundae is steaming. Even her cook was reluctant to make the dish at first, saying “Why do you want to fry sundae? It’s not a sausage.” But Yook wouldn’t let up. “I had zero formal education in cooking, so I had fewer boundaries in developing new dishes, only room for imagination.”

The more Yook studied sundae, the more responsibility she felt to remove sundae’s image as “street food,” which spawned the idea for her book. Over the course of writing it, she has visited Gangwon Province’s Abai Village, famous for its sundae, four times and France three times. Yook plans to follow up with another book including blood sausages from other parts of the world that she couldn’t include in this edition.

“The revival of traditional blood sausages will continue,” she said, “including those made with fish and sheep. My other plan is to present new dishes based on foreign recipes like from France.”

Yook calls sundae a “magic bag” that can contain anything. Depending on what’s put inside, the taste can be completely different. “It’s not just about the food,” Yook said. “My life story, too, is stuffed inside the sundae I make.”

BY SONG JEONG [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]