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Korea Slow Trip – Seriously Authentic Seafood in Jeju

Live sea bream served raw as hoe. Abalones served raw, stewed or atop a dolsot rice seasoned with abalone liver pâté. Beltfish at peak winter season served in an addictively spicy stew. We had a lot of seafood dishes over 16 days in Korea, but my personal favorite was right here on Jeju Island.

All this wouldn’t be possible without help from local foodies and their Korean language blogs. Don’t expect English menus at the eateries reviewed below; expect the most authentic regional cuisine instead.

Restaurant Review: YONGCHUL HOETJIB (용출횟집) (Jeju) (see map)

This was my favorite meal of our 16-day journey: seafood so fresh they were still moving; motherly service from the gracious ajumma; traditional Jeju specialties with impossibly generous portions. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Evidently most popular among an entire row of hoetjib — Korean for raw fish houses — on the shoreline west of Jeju City, Yongchul is one of those highly specialized restaurants focussing on one thing: it’s own daily selection of whatever is fresh from local fishing boats. Every table aside from ours spoke Korean, including a neighbouring table of Korean and Japanese salarymen enjoying a business dinner with too many bottles of Soju. Needless to say there would be no English menu.

The only choice the customer gets is the species of fish for main course: 100000 Won/Kg for the more affordable hwangdom to a cool 180000 Won/Kg for the exquisite gatdom (i.e. ishidai to sashimi connoisseurs, see my related post from West Japan). The friendly ajumma noticed how clueless these two Canadians were, and recommended 1 kg of hwangdom (황돔), the Jeju specialty of yellow sea bream and a relatively rare fish to be found on Korean Mainland.

Now 100000 Won (CAD$115) for two wasn’t cheap even for Korean seafood aficionados, but wait until you see the variety, quality as well as quantity of local specialities to come, starting with this incredibly fresh turban shell, thickly sliced for added crunch and perfect as appetizer with cho-gochujang or wasabi.

Any seafood dinner in Jeju wouldn’t be complete without the precious abalone, undisputed king of Korean shellfish and the highly esteemed harvest from the haenyeo, Jeju’s dying tradition of female freedivers who risk their lives to bring this delicacy to the table. Lightly umami and delightfully chewy it its raw state, this jeonbok was served in its entirely with the creamy liver in the background, another local favorite in itself.

Perhaps the most famous — or infamous to the squeamish — among raw Korean seafoods, our san-nakji arrived with tentacles still sucking vigorously onto the plate, subsequently our chopsticks and finally our tongues. While copious amounts of sesame oil did help free the octopus from our palate, extra attention had to be paid to this notoriously chewy choking hazard.

By now readers should notice the Korean preference for chewiness in fresh seafood, reaching a pinnacle here with the intensely fibrous and slightly slimy delicacy of haesam, or sea cucumbers. I would have loved a bottle of local soju to wash these down if I weren’t driving.

Ironically the blanched octopus, perhaps the least exotic of the starters and widely known for its rubbery texture, turned out impressively soft. We barely had time to thoroughly appreciate each dish when our proficient chef had already finished cleaning, filleting and plating our live fish on a gigantic platter.

This picture doesn’t do justice to the sheer size — I should have left my puny chopsticks on the side for scale — of the platter, likely our largest ever order of hoe/sashimi/carpaccio in any nationality. Our hwangdom was certainly bigger than the 1 kg that we actually paid for, its main fillet thickly carved for chewiness and the end pieces sliced into long strips in seggosi style.

As we started wrapping our sea bream in perilla leaves, our friendly ajumma decided to take these two foreigners beyond the basic Korean Hoe 101 with her professional opinion on how to do hoessam.

These are the steps I learned from her masterclass:

1. Start with a perilla leaf with the smooth side facing down. This is important as you don’t want the rough underside of the leaf to be the first thing to hit your tongue.
2. One small ball of chobab, or vinegared rice, as a second layer.
3. One slice of roasted seaweed to separate the fish from the vinegared rice.
4. And THEN we finally get to the fish.
5. At last, your choice of condiment — spicy garlic stem, cho-gochujang, ssamjang. Whatever tickles your tastebuds.

The multiple layers of flavours are meant to hit your palate in an optimized sequence as you place the wrapped morsel upside down on your tongue. Perilla to cleanse your palate; condiment and fish as the dominant flavour; roasted seaweed to accentuate the flavour of the sea; vinegared rice and perilla for a refreshing finish.

Now I can impress my Seoulite friend with my newfound Jeju Style.

As we worked continuously towards finishing our 1 kg fish, the kitchen brought even more in the form of a grilled okdom, apparently a winter favorite on both sides of the East Sea / Sea of Japan. We last had this tilefish (i.e. amadai) at the Japanese historic town of Hagi where the default preparation was shioyaki with sea salt in its fresh state. This time it was the Jeju banquet specialty of okdom-gui: semi-dried, brushed with a sweet soya-sesame oil glaze then broiled to an aromatic, slightly charred finish.

As if we weren’t well-fed enough, ajumma brought this large bowl of savory miyeok-guk, or seaweed broth, made with the head and boney portions of our live sea bream. There was still a lot of meat to be picked out, and this would turn into a two hour meal by the time we’re done with these bones.

Our 1 kg sea bream would make one more appearance as a third course, a superb fish porridge with remarkable umami flavours and absolutely no fishiness — this was a live fish after all. Everything from the abalone and san-nakji to the expertly presented hwangdom hoe to the grilled tilefish and seaweed broth was simply top notch.

I have no idea how we managed to finish it all, including the sweet potato tempura and the refreshment of Jeju orange at the end. The businessmen at the next table sounded euphoric the whole time, especially considering that the live sea bream sashimi — kidai ikizukuri in Japan — alone would have easily cost upwards of 8000 yen (CAD$100) in Tokyo. Now you see why I have no qualms about spending 100000 Won (CAD$115) for such an extravagant and authentically Jeju meal.

Meal for Two Persons

Hwangdom 1 kg (Dinner Set for Two) 100000 Won
TOTAL 100000 Won (CAD$115)

As far as I know this is the first ever English-language review of Yongchul Hoetjib, hopefully bringing more attention to this undiscovered gem. Earlier that day we visited another relatively unknown seafood eatery, also with no other review in English at the time of writing.

Restaurant Review: SEONGSAN JINMI SIKDANG (성산진미식당) (Jeju) (see map)

Not to be confused with a Michelin-featured crab restaurant of the same name in Seoul, this unheralded Jinmi Sikdang is an informal eatery at the foot of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Seongsan Ilchulbong, specializing in the Jeju peasant favorite of haemul-ttukbaegi, or seafood-in-earthen-pot.

There was no English menu of course, which was good news considering that we’re within walking distance from a major tourist draw. Things got even better when the house selection of banchan featured two of my favorites: ojingeo-jeot (marinated squid) and myeolchi-bokkeum (fried anchovies), the latter being my number one fave since childhood.

My wife’s fave is a little more refined in comparison.

In the rest of East Asia — Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong or Taipei — the abalone is universally prized as a delicacy of utmost extravagance, appearing only in the most lavish meals where just one mollusc, if not one slice of the mollusc, is typically served per guest. Here on Jeju Island, a blue-collar price of 15000 Won (CAD$17) afforded three large live abalones served as Jeonbok Ttukbaegi — and that’s accompanied by a scallop, half a blue crab, a langoustine, plus clams and mussels served in a soybean broth.

A slightly upscale variant was the Obunjagi Ttukbaegi, featuring five abalones of a smaller species native to Jeju and topped with a luxurious dab of sea urchin roes. The orchestra of shellfishes made for an exceptionally umami broth, and the sea urchin — which we immediately scooped out of the soup and enjoyed separately in its raw state — was as sweet as we could have asked for.

My wife found the larger — and somehow cheaper — abalones much more enjoyable with their softer, perfectly al dente level of chewiness. In retrospect we could have shared a haemultang, not exactly a Jeju specialty but enviably impressive as the mountain of crabs and abalones arrived at the next table, for just 5000 Won more. For fellow independent travelers looking for an authentic lunch spot close to Seongsan Ilchulbong, this is quie a decent choice.

Meal for Two Persons

Jeonbok Haemul Ttukbaegi 15000 Won
Obunjagi Ttukbaegi 20000 Won
TOTAL 35000 Won (CAD$40)

Spending three full days at the abalone capital of Asia — and with a self-proclaimed abalone lover — we went for a third meal of abalone, this time at a restaurant where the king of Korean shellfish is featured in every single menu item.

Restaurant Review: MYEONGJIN JEONBOK (명진전복) (Jeju) (see map)

This place absolutely needs no introduction. As industrial and out-of-the-way as the shop may appear on this remote stretch of the north coast, it may be the most famous restaurant on Jeju Island. To Korean visitors, Myeongjin Jeonbok is so synonymous with Jeju abalone that their signature dishes can be delivered nationwide, even if you live as far away as Sokcho.

To beat the infamous hour-long queues, we purposely arrived at 10:30 and barely took the last table in a packed dining hall. Unlike the other two restaurants reviewed above, Myeongjin did provide an English menu of its four dish repertoire: abalones in porridge, on rice, grilled on an iron plate, or sliced raw for the purist.

But first, the banchan. The spicy ojingeo-jeot was my favorite here, a perfect companion to the sungnyung towards the end of the meal. More about that later.

Not wanting to overstuff ourselves for brunch, we ordered the default jeonbok dolsotbab and jeonbokjuk which also happened to be the two cheapest items on the menu. To our surprise the meal came with a free dish of grilled mackerel, soy-marinated and slightly on the dry side.

You can just tell that this jeonbokjuk was legit just from its greenish colour, derived from the female abalone’s liver widely appreciated from Seoul to Tokyo. Honestly the flavour of the porridge was somewhat underwhelming — I had expected a more pronounced umami taste.

Topped with chewy slices of steamed abalone, our dolsotbab also started out slightly underwhelming … but that was before we started pouring in the water for our highly anticipated sungnyung.

There has to be something magical about the abalone liver pâté and its chemical reaction when roasted in the stone bowl with the crusty rice. The depth of flavour was entirely different from having the rice on its own, quickly turning this dish into the best of the meal!

If we ever get to visit again, I would skip the porridge and go for the dolsotbab, and try the grilled abalone that was sizzling aromatically at the neighbouring table this whole time.

Meal for Two Persons

Jeonbokjuk 12000 Won
Jeonbok Dolsotbab 15000 Won
TOTAL 27000 Won (CAD$31)

We actually had a fourth seafood meal, an excellent beltfish stew at a small informal eatery. But this is getting long and I’ll leave that for the next post. As any visitor can attest, Jeju really is the seafood lover’s paradise.


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