No need to get crabby over high pricesFor decades, North and South Koreas have endured a series of conflicts over issues concerning the security of the region, such as defectors, family reunions, and the North’s nuclear program. The source of the latest fight is small but no less contentious: the blue crab from the west coast of the Korean peninsula.
Known as kkotge in Korean, the blue crab (portunus tribuberculatus) found in the oceans near China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan is one of the most popular dishes in the region. In its high season in June every year, both North and South Korean fishermen try to scoop up all they can from the ocean.
After years of spats between fishing boats and security forces at the Northern Limit Line (NLL) near Yeonpyeong island, things turned violent on the morning of June 15, 1999, when a 10-day standoff over North Korean fishing boats crossing the NLL erupted in gunfire between North and South naval forces. At least 10 from the North were killed; seven South Koreans were injured.
Since then, the crab conflict has continued, although on a much smaller scale. This year, the competition comes not only from the North but also the Chinese, pushing the price of the live kkotge to a record 50,000 won ($42) per kilogram, more than three times the price from last year.
Crab lovers and restaurateurs are complaining that it’s too expensive to enjoy Korea’s all-time favorite dish.
“Fishermen are just not catching enough blue crabs this year,” said sellers at local fish markets.
Measuring on average 8.5 centimeters long and 17.5 centimeters wide and weighing about 400 grams, the crab has an oval shell body with a bluish-green tint, which turns bright orange when cooked. Unlike other crab varieties, the blue crab in Asia can swim using flapper-like swimming legs.
The Korean blue crab has its high season from late May to June and from October to early December. High in protein and calcium, the crab, when cooked, yields snowy white flesh, although some parts can be tinged in brown, green and red. The meat is delicately sweet, firm yet slightly flaky.
Crabfest at home
For my family, it’s a waste of money to go to crab restaurants because it’s much easier and cheaper to have a kkotge feast at home. And my mother’s family has the best recipe for preparing the Korean blue crab. My mother always believed that steaming the crab or fermenting it with soy sauce were the best ways to enjoy top-quality crab, but turning three or four crabs into a stew with vegetables was more economical.
How good is my family’s Korean-style blue crab stew recipe (at right)? An older Italian sculptor, who is also a great seafood chef himself, visited our home and had the crab dish. What I remember from that dinner is his face being buried behind the large bowl as he heartily consumed the soup. It was the first time he had ever had a Korean spicy stew in 60-something years.
What’s great about the recipe is that frozen crabs, whose flesh is slightly flakier than that of fresh ones, can work extremely well, just like frozen crab in sauteed dishes.
Right now in Korea, there are less expensive alternatives, such as imported snow and king crabs, at the capital’s two main seafood markets, Noryangjin and Garak Sijang.
“But Korean blue crabs taste the best, of course,” boasts a seller of Deungdae Susan (Lighthouse Seafood), which specializes in all kinds of crabs inside Noryangjin market.
In Korea, the blue crab caught from Seosan, Tae-an and Sorae off the west coast are considered to be the best. In early summer, female crabs cost about three times more than males because of their yellow mustard and eggs. Female crabs can be easily distinguished by their visibly white “apron,” which Koreans call baekkop, or navel.
In the fall, the male crab is more meaty. To enjoy the crab’s full flavor, female crabs are simply marinated in soy sauce, and male crabs are boiled to make clear broth or stew.
Be sure to take note of the gender of the crabs you’re buying from a merchant, just so that you don’t end up getting a less meaty male or two when you thought you had bought all females. Unscrupulous crab merchants have sometimes been known to switch out different crabs right before wrapping it up for customers.
At the fish market, the extra-fresh crabs look vivid, lively and ocean-clean and smell briny-fresh. Dead crabs and crabs with broken limbs are a sign of low quality, so steer away from them.
Crabs are also extremely perishable and prone to bacterial contamination, so be sure to buy only intact, live ones.
Because of the crabs’ current steep price, sellers recommend simple steaming to enjoy the freshness of kkotge this year.
For elaborate cooking with spices, such as in a stew or sauteed with curry sauce, or deep-frying, frozen-at-the-ocean kkotge can be a reasonable alternative at 18,000 won per kilogram.
Currently, markets are offering imported varieties, mostly from Russia, North Korea and China, that are almost equally as tasty. Daege (snow crab), king crab (golden king crab), teolge (kegani or hairy crab) are available fresh and live, while hongge (Alaskan king crab), soft shell crab and Dungeness crabs are available frozen. The live hairy crab, once only sold in Japan, is most expensive at 25,000 won per crab.
At E-Mart, one of the local discount stores, imported crabs are washed, steamed in a pressure cooker and packaged for home parties.
Prices vary from day to day. Snow crab is sold at about 25,000 won per kilogram, and king crab about 30,000 to 40,000 won.
The extra large king crab can cost up to 80,000 won per animal, which can be shared by a family of three or four.
When buying the snow or king crab, make sure to buy those that are packed with a lot of flesh.
“Using a thumb and an index finger, press the top part of the crab’s leg to see how full it is,” said Moon Byeong-nam, a crab merchant who also runs a seafood restaurant in Garak Sijang.
Crab specialists can go on and on in detail on how to kill a live crab before cooking. However, when asked about how to do the deed, sellers at the local markets all had one answer: “We just put a live one into the steamer, belly-side up.”
As he picked up an enormously large snow crab, Mr. Moon said, “These imported crabs are tasty, but it’s time for us to eat the best-tasting kkotge right now.
“The money’s worth it ―you get what you pay for,” Mr. Moon said, as he enviously gazed at the live blue crabs in the store next door.
(Spicy blue crab stew)
Three or four medium to large blue crabs (fresh or thawed)
6 cups of water
1/4 of a small radish
one small strip of sea kelp or dasima
1 medium zucchini
1 small onion (sliced)
6 green and red chile peppers (sliced)
2 stems green onion (3-4 cm strips)
five cloves of garlic (chopped)
2 tablespoons of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoons of red pepper paste
1 tablespoon of traditional Korean soy sauce
1 tablespoon of roasted sesame seeds
dash of black pepper
ssuk (wild chrysanthemum leaves).
*Optional: fresh pumpkin leaves and/or 1 tablespoon of soy bean paste
1. To make a broth, add sea kelp, radish and soy sauce in six cups of water in a large pot.
2. Scrub crabs and cut into pieces. Cut off the mouth, gills and the end tips of legs and claws with scissors.
3. When the stock boils, add red pepper powder, red pepper paste, garlic and if desired, soy bean paste.
4. Add the crabs and cook for 10 minutes with the cover closed.
5. Add zucchini and onion, and cook for an additional 10 minutes, carefully monitoring the crab.
6. When all shells turn bright orange, add green onion, green and red chile peppers, pumpkin leaves, sesame seeds and black pepper. Ssuk requires only minimal cooking, so add at the very end.
7. Serve immediately.
(Serves 3-4 people)
by Ines Cho