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Korea Slow Trip – Sokcho, Korea’s Seafood Mecca

Tragically dismissed by most foreigners as the unattractive gateway to Seoraksan National Park, the rough-and-tumble seaport of Sokcho is famous among Koreans for its lipsmacking regional recipes and bountiful hauls of red snow crabs. It’s also the closest thing to a North Korean town you can visit without traveling to North Korea, which adds to the legend of this farflung city sitting north of the 38th parallel.

Even within South Korea Sokcho carries a roughneck reputation, a Wild West with kitschy signs for Thai massage next to the bus terminal and featuring an excess of cheap hotels and furnished apartments for corporate employees on assignments and beachgoing vacationers alike. It may not strike first time visitors as the most welcoming destination until that first bite of its unpretentious North Korean dishes, served perhaps by a broad-shouldered ajumma with a peculiar Hamgyeong accent from beyond the militarized border.

This uniqueness in local cuisine is just tip of the iceberg, an epitome of Sokcho’s twist of fate when the initially-North Korean city ended up in the South by the end of the Korean War. It should be no surprise that Sokcho hosts the largest North Korean community in the South, with a third of its citizens — 30,000 in all — still speaking some variant of a northern dialect.

The result is an exquisite fusion of North and South Korean culinary traditions, brought together by the resourcefulness of the North Korean diaspora in Sokcho and found nowhere else in the world. As most of these North Koreans happened to be fishermen by trade, today’s visitors are treated to some of the peninsula’s freshest seafood and most fascinating recipes.

Restaurant Review: YETBUKCHEONG ABAI SUNDAE (옛북청아바이순대) (Sokcho) (see map)

One such recipe is Sokcho’s nationally-famous dish known as abai sundae, a stark departure from the conventional sundae typically seen coiled up and steaming at neighbourhood streetside stands across South Korea. Sokcho’s version — North Korea’s version actually — replaces the bland sausage casing with an entire tube of lightly charred calamari and the blood pudding filling with even more squid. You’re probably drooling now if you’re a seafood lover.

So we consulted the Korean bloggers on Naver and picked out this locally recommended spot.

Yetbukcheong is a cozy family-run eatery a few minutes walk south of Sokcho’s Highspeed Bus Terminal. The menu was straightforward: 15000 to 20000 Won (CAD$17-$23) for a full meal with an appetizer of organic salad bibimbab, mini sundae plus an entree of your choice. And according to the neon signs outside, the house specialty entrees seemed to be abai sundae and raw shrimp in ganjang marinade.

This would be one of our most memorable meals in Korea, due not only to the delectable Sokcho cuisine but also motherly care from two imonim who helped these two clueless Canadians with everything from menu recommendations to demonstrating the classic usages of condiments provided. Arriving first was a free mini bibimbab, an appetizer-sized serving of rice topped with organic salad, red seaweed and one of my favourite banchans known as ojingeo-jeot, or marinated raw squid.

This next dish alone should explain Sokcho’s seduction to seafood fans.

If you’re already familiar with ganjang gejang, the Korean soy-marinated raw crab that has taken Japan by storm in recent years, this is the local version made with deshelled raw shrimp to be served on top of steamed rice … along with its mellow red caviar of course.

Meticulously cut into pieces by the imonim and mixed with egg yolk, red seaweed and even more organic salad, our ganjang saewoo would make a poor man’s ganjang gejang at the blue-collar price of just 13000 Won (CAD$15).

Don’t forget to scoop the luscious caviar out of the shrimp heads before digging into the steamed rice beneath. I know this would not sit well with fans of ganjang gejang, but I would rate this cheap dish of soy-marinated shrimp higher than any marinated crab — some costing three times as much — I’ve tried elsewhere in Korea.

And this was just the beginning.

Our long awaited abai sundae, Sokcho’s signature dish and edible manifestation of its North Korean heritage, arrived alongside the regular black sundae and the spicy red myeongtae hoe, or marinated raw pollock. The North Korean version was the calamari lover’s dream — a whole mid-sized calamari stuffed with minced squid tentacles, glass noodles and mixed vegetables, dipped in an egg batter and pan-fried to a golden crispiness.

Here’s the local wisdom that our serving imonim taught us — use the natural salinity of fresh red seaweed to accentuate the umami flavour of the abai sundae. Just another proof that imonim always knows what’s best for you.

For regular sundae our server recommended the classic vinegared perilla as wrapping. While the content of this sundae — glass noodles, chopped cabbage and carrots, and of course coagulated blood — seemed quite standard, I found it quite light tasting (i.e. less “bloody”) and optimized for a seafood-centric dinner.

A few weeks later I’m still salivating as I process these photos. To fellow independent travelers seeking authentic Sokcho flavours, this place is a rare gem especially considering its walkability from the highspeed bus terminal for that last meal before returning to Seoul.

Meal for Two Persons

Well-Being Bibimbab FREE
Ganjang Saewoo Bab 13000 Won
Mixed Sundae 25000 Won
TOTAL 38000 Won (CAD$44)

Aside from its North Korean-influenced recipes, Sokcho is also famous for seafood of the live, writhing variety.

Seoul has the Noryangjin Fish Market and Busan has the Jagalchi, yet most visitors don’t realize that those crabs mostly come from Sokcho and the rest of Gangwon-do’s frigid waters. If you’re a serious crab lover, you should consider going straight to the source at Sokcho’s Daepohang Seafood Market.

Restaurant Review: DAEPOHANG SEAFOOD MARKET (대포항수산시장) (Sokcho) (see map)

This isn’t one restaurant, but a collection of a hundred of so fish-stall-cum-eateries across multiple buildings, all flaunting their tanks full of swimming flounders, sea breams, baby octopuses, abalones and sea squirts, and of course the famous local catch of snow crabs. We randomly chose a stall named Ilmi Taeyunine at Section A Number 20 — nearly every stall posted the same menu with the exact same prices. Crabs don’t seem any cheaper than at Noryangjin to be honest, but you can expect the freshest quality coming off Sokcho’s fishing fleet just a stone’s throw away.

Crab lovers should note that there are two different kinds of snow crabs at Sokcho’s markets. The large brown type known as daege — i.e. o-zuwai-gani at nabemono restaurants in Japan — is the meatier species commanding a premium price. The smaller red ones known as Hongge — i.e. beni zuwai-gani often used for crab meat canning — are not as fleshy and are locally appreciated for its caviar.

Look at the vigor of this daege and its large size relative to the flounder at the bottom! Sokcho’s appeal to the throngs of Japanese tourists is apparent — an o-zuwai-gani of this size would easily command 8000-10000 yen (90000-110000 Won) in Japan. Here 120000 won would buy a multi-course feast that includes an usuzukuri (i.e. thin-sliced sashimi) of a whole live flounder.

Dinner would start with a basket of steamed scallops and clams in their shells, served with the standard dippings of cho-gochujang and wasabi. Nothing fancy; just local shellfish at their freshest.

Within minutes our expert chef had turned the thrashing flounder into a mouthwatering platter of gwangeo-hoe, complete with a little ball of end cuts sliced into thick, crunchy strips in seggosi style. It is notable that Koreans love their flounder in vinegared hot sauce while the the Japanese serve theirs with citrus vinegar. Everyone seems to agree on some acidity to zest up this mild-flavoured white fish.

One can tell the freshness of the flounder by the semi-translucense of the flesh. While the choice of ssam wrappings and condiments wasn’t as sophisticated as the excellent hoetjib we visited three nights ago in Jeju, we both enjoyed the delicate flavours and chewy texture of this premium flatfish.

Not letting the flounder steal its thunder, our highly anticipated snow crab made its entrance on a steaming platter with its giant legs sliced half open and ready to be scooped out. The last time we finished an entire snow crabs was at a Japanese izakaya in Matsue across the East Sea from Sokcho, and that was nowhere as outstanding as this enormous daege in terms of its prized umami sweetness.

One recipe we learned at Sokcho’s markets was how the locals scoop out the crab juice and caviar, mixing with steamed rice and stuffing the lustrous mixture back into the carapace. Our experiment here turned out somewhat successful, though a little crushed seaweed and roasted sesame would have been the cherry on top.

The bony parts of our flounder arrived near the end in the form of a maeuntang, swimming in a spicy, lightly umami fish broth beside the joseon-mu radishes and leeks. While 124000 Won for dinner certainly wasn’t cheap — and I’m sure I could have found cheaper prices at the Jungang Market — it was a neat experience picking our own live flounder for hoe and a live snow crab that turned out among the sweetest we had ever tasted.

Meal for Two Persons

Daege Dinner for Two 120000 Won
Soju 4000 Won
TOTAL 124000 Won (CAD$142)

The other seafood market we had our sight on was Sokcho’s famous Jungang Market, a 1970s style covered arcade where the local halmeoni may check out new clothes for the grandkids while picking up a bunch of dried hwangtae. Aside from the expected wet market sections for fishmongers and butchers and the dry sections for clothing and kitchenware, there also exists an entire floor of hoetjib and crab restaurants hidden in the basement.

This was late in the crab season when the crowded tanks were loaded with these thin-legged hongge while abalones and sea squirts squirmed nearby. Further down the alley the peasant favourites of sun-dried pollocks and yellow croakers hung in the wind, next to the seaweed stalls with their bewildering variety of laver: green, purple, fresh, sun-dried and roasted.

Eating too much? One could join the local kids in helping the rafter pull the gaetbae — a human-powered cable ferry that has become the symbol of Sokcho — across the narrow harbour towards the Abai Village, a small sandbar settled by North Korean refugees and now the de facto hometown of their children and grandchildren.

Now gentrified into a tourist district of seafood eateries and cafes, Abai Village started out as a shantytown of refugees who scraped out a tough living and assiduously transformed the backwaters of Sokcho into one of the nation’s foremost fishing ports. After all most migrants hailed from wintry Hamgyeong, a penal colony in the Joseon Dynasty and allegedly raising the toughest and hardiest of Koreans.

Our two nights in Sokcho were among our best memories of Korea: sublime seafood, very nice apartment plus the most spectacular hike at nearby Seoraksan National Park. For readers interested in conquering the breathtaking landscape above, stay tuned for the next article — it’s actually a beginner’s hike.


Sokcho is a 2.5 hour ride from Dong (East) Seoul Bus Terminal (Gangbyeon Station, Line 2) or 3 hours from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal (Express Bus Terminal Station, Line 3/7/9). Buses from both terminals arrive at Sokcho’s two bus terminals — the Highspeed Bus Terminal (see map) located in the south of the city and the Intercity Bus Terminal (see map) near its city centre. The two terminals are connected by frequent city buses. Staying near the Highspeed Bus Terminal may better serve hikers wanting quicker access to Seoraksan National Park, while non-hikers may want to stay near the Intercity Bus Terminal for walkability to the Jungang Market and Abai Village.


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