A royal Korean treat, Jeju, South Korea
As I stand watching Cho BeobSeong, I can’t help but admire the sell. From his stall inside the Taewangsashingi drama set he draws over a group of passing tourists with details of a Korean treat – “Crispy Dragon Beard”. A Korean treat that was once popular with the royal courts.
In fourteen twists of his hands, a warmed block of honey mixed with sticky rice turns into thousands of thin, white strands. Wrapping this around a small mixture of roasted coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds it is finished.
He passes a sample across to the gathered tourists – predominantly Japanese women – who ‘um’ and ‘ah’ at the little creation. After a taste and little more friendly exchange of pleasantries, some purchase a gift box. Then, they’re on their way to explore further royalty at the drama set. He hasn’t even finished opening the stall before he’s made his first sale of the day. Cho turns to speak with me, laughing a little, “ah, it’s very interesting.”
A thoroughly modern businessman, he is the CEO of the company, which currently possesses a contract for many of the catering and concession stands at the Taewangsashingi drama set. There is also a presence at Jungmun Resort and across the East Sea in Japan. Cho himself grew up in Japan and divides his time between the two countries.
According to Cho the technique to create the treat has not changed. It is still hand-made the traditional way: “stretch, stretch, stretch” he continually repeats. He suddenly breaks off to engage another passing tourist – this time an older Korean lady with a few loud, inquisitive, questions – before continuing: “In Korea only a few people can make this, maybe twenty to thirty.” He spent three years with his teacher in Yeongsan, Seoul and has been doing the job about thirteen years, split between Korea and Japan. He hasn’t taught anyone yet, except his partner of ten years “[and] he’s better than me!”, Cho jokes.
It takes about two minutes to make one box of ten pieces. “But it’s very hard to make that” he says. Of course there are customers and other business to attend to. “In one hour I can make only five or six…[It is] good exercise for me actually…you need strong finger[s]…I have to stretch and stretch.”
He makes a fresh sample for my benefit that I taste. Expecting it to stick uncomfortably to my teeth, it falls apart in my mouth. It is sweet but does get sickly after a short time. In the fridge at home it’ll last two or three days. So there’s time to pick over a box priced (5,000 – 10,000 won).
On the way back to Jeju City I get the chance to talk with Cho in a more comfortable setting. A warm car journey lightens the atmosphere and away from the business he opens up a little more. I get a glimpse of a man who works and works – a living embodiment of a recent report that stated South Koreans are among some of the hardest working people on earth. Averaging four to five hours a night for sleep he has many plans and at least now he has his wife alongside him, working at the business too.
How much is corporate speak and how much is actually Cho, is debatable. He is a consummate businessman once the uniform goes on and there’s still a feeling of this left over when it’s off. However, if you find yourself at Taewangsashingi or Jungmun then take a look at the treat he produces. It’s something a little different. And if you don’t see it not long after you arrive you’ll be sure to hear his calls anyway.