Love on the half shell

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Love on the half shell

TONGYEONG, North Gyeongsang province - One of the most well-known bumper stickers in the United States is, "Eat fish, live longer. Eat oysters, love longer."

Oysters, those exotic mollusks with their bumpy shells and tempting odor, are widely known to arouse appetites and inflame the libido.

Casanova supppsedly ate 50 raw oysters every morning while in the bathtub with his mistress. Balzac was said to celebrate the completion of each new novel by eating dozens of oysters, along with 12 cutlets of salt meadow mutton and some duck turnips. Some even say one reason Julius Caesar wanted to invade Britain was because of the oysters from the mouth of the Thames River.

The world over, oysters have stimulated, fascinated and intoxicated.

Korea's history with the oyster is long and lively. Five hundred years ago, oysters were a gift that royalty presented to one another. At one point, the word oyster also meant empress. And according to a Joseon Dynasty medical record, people used to crush the shells into powder and make a paste that helped to stop bleeding.

"If you eat oysters when they're fresh," raves one oyster lover, "you can almost feel the different layers of texture in the meat. You dip them into a chili paste, and there is nothing else like it in the world."

Tongyeong, a five-hour drive from Seoul, provides 70 percent of the peninsula's rock oysters. Tongyeong oysters also are exported to Japan, Southeast Asia and United States. Although most Korean oysters are quite small, in Tongyeong they are considerably larger, often around 10 centimeters across.

Even how Tongyeong people says the word "oyster" is telling ?in standard Korean, "oyster" is gul, but in the Tongyeong accent people say kkul, which is the Korean word for "honey." In fact, the taste of Tongyeong oysters is almost as sweet as honey, and as soft as buttermilk. "They're so slippery that they pass through your neck before you realize it," confesses one taster at the Tongyeong Oyster Festival (held each March).

Every year from December to early April ?the apex of the rock oyster season ?tourists and seafood merchants from across the nation flock to this city just to bid on barrels of fresh oysters at night auctions, typically held in the local fisheries and oysters cooperatives. The oysters purchased during these sessions are typically taken back home to be frozen and eaten year round.

A typical Tongyeong recipe for oyster can be quite simple ?steamed oysters served on top of sweet rice, dates, mushrooms, and some chestnuts, sprinkled lightly with sesame oil. Other specialties include spicy oysters with steamed vegetables and salted oysters, which are more challenging for first-time tasters (they smell potent; some might even say they stink).

Perhaps the most common way to eat oysters is to have them served raw with lemon (although this being Korea, you also get some seaweed and sweet chili paste, too). It's the standard appetizer at any Tongyeong restaurant, even in run-down neighborhood bars.

At Hyangtojip (055-645-4808), one of the few restaurants in the country that serves only oyster dishes, the chefs offer more than 10 different recipes using just oysters and vegetables.

The variety is impressive: oyster rice, oyster porridge, oyster Mongolian hot pot, oyster jeon (which one French customer described as "an oyster omelet"), spicy oysters with steamed vegetables, salted oysters, toasted oysters, oyster stew and broiled oysters.

The restaurant used to serve even more recipes before moving to its current location.

If you cannot choose just one dish, Hyangtojip lets you choose a little of everything for 20,000 won ($15). Normally you need at least a party of four for this elaborate order, but on a slow day you might be able to convince the chef to prepare it for one or two people.

During the peak season, Hyangtojip purchases its oysters daily from the city's market, 10 minutes away. In the offseason, from April to September, when the oysters get smaller, the restaurant buys the best in larger batches and freezes it.

There are many explanations for the superiority of Tongyeong oysters. Cheon Yang-gun, the owner of Hyangtojip, praises the local water for the magic mollusks. "With any seafood you buy from here, they are more fresh, because the water is simply different," he says. "The typical flavor of oysters is much stronger here compared to other regions, and the spawns are also thicker." Mr. Cheon argues that especially with oysters, growth is drastically effected by the water climate. The mud beaches on the west coast have water that is much shallower and less clean than the east coast's Hallyo Marine National Park ?the area where many Tongyeong oysters are harvested.

These days, oysters in Tongyeong are plentiful and cheap, selling for 23,000 won for 10 kilograms in the market auctions. After April, the price drops to 20,000 won. It's the best and perhaps the last chance until next December to enjoy a plate of raw Tongyeong oysters.

When you do so, remember, even if oysters do not help you live longer or love longer, you can always live to eat oysters and love them.

by Park Soo-mee

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