East Coast Crabs at Their Prime

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East Coast Crabs at Their Prime

Korean people often say that they tend to lose their appetite during the seasonal change from winter to spring. For those suffering the same lack, who want something to reignite their taste buds, yeongdeokge may be the ticket.

Yeongdeokge ("ge" is Korean for crab) is a kind of snow crab abundant in areas along Korea's east coast, and particularly in Yeongdeok, North Kyongsang province, which lends the crab its name. A slightly different Korean name for the crab, yeongdeokdaege, also reflects the crab's distinctive shape. Its jointed legs are said to resemble thin bamboo stalks, and so the latter part of its name, daegae, means "bamboo crab" - though some Koreans mistakenly believe the dae means "big," from the Chinese character. In fact, "dae" is the pure Korean word for "bamboo."

The Yeongdeok crab has a chewy texture and a sweet, subtle flavor that makes it a favorite on springtime menus. The crab's marvelous taste made it a prize offering to kings during the Choson Dynasty.

Yeongdeok crabs live in clear ocean waters at a depth of about 200 to 400 meters. The crabs are usually caught between November and May but taste the best around this time of year.

Unless it has the misfortune of an early death on a dinner plate, a Yeongdeok crab will live for about 15 years and during that time will replace its carapace two or three times. Jukdo, an island off the Yeongdeok area, is thought to be the place where the Yeongdeok crab originated and Ganggu port, also in Yeongdeok, has become the core of the crab's distribution because of the crab processing factories that have sprung up around it.

The ocean off the east coast is full of deep valleys, some of which consist of just rocks and clean sand. These are called wangdoljam by the local people, and are considered the best habitat for Yeongdeok crabs, as crabs caught here have long legs that are full of juicy flesh. Residents of other areas along the east coast, such as Wuljin and Guryongpo, have also tried to heighten the repute of snow crabs caught in their own areas, but Yeongdeok crab is still the best-known.

Every day between 7 and 8 a.m., Yeongdeok crab auctions are held at Ganggu port. Different types of Yeongdeok crab may look the same to the layman, but prices differ greatly. The cost of a regular Yeongdeok crab ranges between 30,000 ($24) won and 70,000 won per kilogram. Bakdal crab, the highest quality Yeongdeok crab, is also the most expensive, fetching about 100,000 won per kilogram. Bakdal crab is not only very rare - only two or three out of every hundred Yeongdeok crabs caught are bakdal crab - but exceedingly rich in taste.

Ganggu port benefited hugely from being featured on a popular weekly television show a few years ago. Thanks to the show, the port became a tourist attraction and restaurants around the port specializing in Yeongdeok crab dishes flourished. At those restaurants, crab dishes cost between 50,000 won and 100,000 won per person.

The third Yeongdeokge Festival will be held for five days between April 14 and 18 at Ganggu port. This annual festival includes various interesting events for visitors, such as the chance to sample the delicious Yeongdeok crab, a beauty contest to select a young woman to promote the crab (we are not making this up), Korean folk bands, a singing contest and a traditional ritual ceremony called Byeolsingut.

Yeongdeok crab tastes best at a cold temperature. Be careful not to mistake it for the red crab (hongge in Korean) - while at first glance the two types look similar, the red crab has a reddish underbelly, a tougher shell and - most importantly - an inferior taste.

How to Distinguish the Real Yeongdeokge (snow crab) From Hongge (red crab):

Yeongdeokge on the whole has a darker red hue except for its white belly, while hongge is entirely bright orange. The outer shell of the yeongdeokge is harder than that of the hongge. The crabs can be also distinguished by their body shape. Yeongdeokge has a smooth, round body shell, but hongge has a small thorn on each side of its body shell and is triangular. The hongge is lighter because it has less meat inside its legs than the yeongdeokge.

How to Make Sure Your Yeongdeokge Is in Good Shape:

1. The crab should be alive and in good health. When picked up by the body, the crab should wriggle its legs. The more active it is, the fresher.

2. The shell should be hard, not soft, all around.

3. The color of the shell should be deep red. Ones with a black tint or bad smell should be avoided.

4. Some crabs come with tiny growths on their outer body. They may appear somewhat unattractive and even dirty, but they are the sign of natural, healthy symbiosis. Their tiny crustaceous hitchhikers in fact add extra nutrients to the crabmeat.

5. The heavier the crab, the more white meat it has.

by Sung Ho-jun / Ines Cho

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