Korea’s undersea morselsOysters are eaten all over Korea during the winter ― steamed, boiled, fried, fermented, with shells and without. Though the country doesn’t have a single oyster bar, the pearly mollusks are cheap and readily available in markets and restaurants.
But though the world’s oyster lovers would be shocked to hear it, Korean oysters ― gul, guljogae, moryeo and seokhwa, as they are known ― have been a neglected delicacy. There’s been surprisingly little research done on the subject of Korea’s oysters, but several indigenous species are believed to have become extinct from years of pollution and landfill expansion.
Along the Incheon coast, for instance, it was once possible decades ago to eat fresh oysters picked off the rocks. But these days, there’s too much pollution for that. “Oysters began to smell like petroleum,” one resident recalls.
For the most part, Korean diners haven’t paid much attention to the different varieties of oyster. If they make a distinction, it’s between farmed oysters and wild ones.
Today, most oysters available in the country are crassostrea gigas, known as the Japanese or Giant Pacific oyster. The Korean version comes from the southwestern and southern coasts in South Chungcheong, South Jeolla and South Gyeongsang provinces.
At the Garak Seafood Wholesale Market in eastern Seoul, there are two kinds of mass-distributed oysters ― those from Yeosu, South Jeolla province, and those from Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang province. Available in various sizes, they are sold pre-shelled, half-shelled and unshelled. A box of about two dozen half-shelled oysters starts from 5,000 won ($5).
The Yeosu and Tongyeong oysters are slightly different, but are farmed using the same method every year, by a type of aquaculture called sub-tidal culture. The deep, clean water off Korea’s southern coast keeps the farmed oysters cold enough to stay alive; it’s a favorable environment that produces high-quality oysters that are processed for export. Since the 1960s, when aquaculture was introduced, the Japanese oyster from Tongyeong has been a commercially important shellfish for Korea.
A local seller based in Tongyeong notes that the town now sells only farmed varieties that are rated top-grade. Wild oysters, she says, are too expensive and too limited in quantity to be profitable.
Still, seafood epicures in Korea have never stopped appreciating the country’s wild oysters, increasingly rare though they are.
From December through March, pre-shelled wild oysters from Goheung, South Jeolla province, can be found in limited quantities in the wholesale market. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) costs about 7,000 won.
Today, the most prized wild oysters in Korea come from Seosan, South Chungcheong province. In his elaborate book on Korean gourmet food, Domundaejak (which, roughly translated, means “Dreaming of Big Bites in Front of the Butcher’s Gate”), the celebrated Joseon Dynasty scholar Heo Gyun included Seosan’s fermented oysters, or eoriguljeot, as one of the finest regional delicacies.
Fresh Seosan oysters are hard to find in Seoul’s seafood markets; harvested and processed in Seosan, they are distributed directly nationwide through the region’s oyster association.
On Ganwoldo, a small island off Seosan, a wholesaler and retailer called Jinyangho specializes in natural oysters indigenous to the region. Owner Lee Soon-ok says that even sellers in the area sell the farmed variety these days, because it’s cheaper and readily available in large quantities.
When asked about another delicacy known as seokgul, or large roasted oysters sold in South Chungcheong province restaurants, Ms. Lee immediately dismissed it as the farmed variety.
“Most tourists think plumper and larger oysters are better, but those are the farmed ones that are cheaper and less tasty,” Ms. Lee says. “The natural one is smaller, and the farmed one has a black rim you cannot miss.”
All oysters for sale at Jinyangho are pre-shelled, unless an order for unshelled oysters is made in advance. Wild oysters sell for 10,000 won per kilogram. Takeout orders of fresh oysters are packed in a plastic bag with chopped ice.
Experts say extra-fresh oysters have a clean and lustrous appearance, a resilient texture and a salty taste. (Oysters, incidentally, are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, including calcium and potassium.)
Oysters should be washed in cold salt water. They’ll keep for up to five days if properly refrigerated. Except for a few special summer varieties, oysters harvested between May and August should be avoided, as there is a risk of food poisoning.
It takes only a moment to shuck a few fresh oysters, and the taste is well worth it. Each Seosan morsel I had was creamy and intensely aromatic. For days, my family ate oysters from various regions ― fresh, pan-fried, boiled or pickled, with beer, sake, champagne and Chardonnay.
The subtle flavor of fresh oyster is at its best when prepared au naturel, with a few squirts of fresh lemon juice. Koreans often dip them in a light sauce made with soy sauce, chopped green onions and some apple vinegar or lemon juice.
With treats like this available so cheaply, and in such abundance, who needs an oyster bar?
For epicures who want to try the subtle varieties of Korea’s oysters, here’s a quick guide, complete with pictures:
Wild Seosan oysters have a distinctive shell, small and light gray, two or three centimeters long and four or five wide. The shells have very thin, sharp, irregular ridges that look like scales, and they tend to be clumped together.
The best wild Seosan oysters are usually sold pre-shelled and in seawater. The water may look a little foamy and murky, but don’t let that put you off; it’s the saltwater that keeps it fresh. The meat is small and pale gray, with a deep golden tint. Its tiny stomach is light brown; the gill, at the edge of the flesh, is finely lined in brown. It has a rich taste and a strong, herbal aftertaste that comes from the combination of the seawater’s complex minerals. Because of its strong taste, it goes well with dry white wine.
The farmed oyster from South Chungcheong province is assumed to be a variation of the Giant Pacific oyster, except that the shell is blue or purplish. The meat, measuring about two centimeters in length and three or four centimeters in width, is a creamy beige and has a mildly woody taste.
Visually, the most distinctive feature is the short black rim around the gill. Because of the rippled gill, the meat has a slightly chewy texture.
Goheung’s wild oyster is a little larger than Seosan’s wild variety; the meat measures about four or five centimeters in length and about three centimeters in width. The meat has a brownish tint, and the gill is darker. The distinctive feature is a bulging stomach that appears greenish. It has a fishier and bitter taste from the stomach, and a chewy texture from the adductor muscle, which functions as the hinge of the shellfish; it looks like a small, round button.
The shell of the Yeosu wild oyster is fairly large. About four centimeters long and six to 10 centimeters wide, the tan or light-brown shell has wide black stripes.
The most noticeable feature is the long, black rim along the gill; the off-white flesh is flat and has a golden tint all over. Because of the prominently large gill that flares like a skirt, the oyster’s light meat has a delicately chewy texture.
Tongyeong oysters (pictured above) have shells whose color ranges from grayish-white to tan or brown; they measure about 3 centimeter long and 10 to 15 centimeters wide. The shells are rough and highly irregular, with concentrically curved ridges that look like scales.
The shape of the shell varies from long and thin to round and thick. Like most farmed varieties, the ivory-colored meat comes with clear black rims, and it has a medium brown stomach that yields a mild, woody flavor. It has a creamy flavor and a nice texture.
Oyster Central: The island of Ganwoldo
To find Korea’s best-tasting oysters, head south ―.specifically, to Seosan in South Chungcheong province, and nearby Ganwoldo island.
Though Seosan is famous for oysters, the city, just like any other Korean provincial city, is a commercial center. The open-air market, Seosan Dongbu Sijang, located on Sijang-gil (Market Street) downtown, offers fresh oysters shelled on the spot, but merchants there take every other day off to pick oysters.
About an hour’s drive from Seosan is Ganwoldo. This small island has become increasingly touristy as visitors come to its vast tideland in search of the famous oysters.
Union workers harvest both wild and farmed oysters every other day, shell them the next day and sell their yield through the region’s oyster association. Most stores display fermented oysters in jars.
There are dozens of roadside restaurants on Ganwoldo specializing in gulbap, steamed oyster rice. A seller who specializes in wild oysters recommended Chunjane (041-662-7091), a humble eatery owned by a matronly chef named Chunja. Located just off the main road as you enter the island, the restaurant has about 10 formica tables that overlook a spectacular ocean view.
Regular gulbap, which costs 8,000 won, is made with oysters, sweet potatoes and ginkgo nuts. “Special gulbap,” at 10,000 won, comes topped with flying fish roe. A main dish comes with a dozen banchan (side dishes). Topped with big, plump oysters, the gulbap was delicious, but the side dishes weren’t very impressive.
Were the oysters wild or farmed? Four fishermen at a nearby table complained loudly: “Ajumma, the oysters in the rice are too big!” The lady shouted back: “When natural oysters are cooked, they shrink so small that they look like flies! So we don’t use them in cooking.”
To drive to Ganwoldo from Seoul, take the southbound Gyeongbu Expressway for about an hour to Seosan Junction. Follow the signs to Ganwoldo; it’ll take another hour or so to get there.
Trains depart every hour from Seoul Station; get off at Janghang Line, Hongseong Station. From Hongseong Station, take the bus bound for Gungri; it’s about 40 minutes to Seosan Dam, which is walking distance from Ganwoldo.
By bus, take the Changri-bound express bus to Seosan from Nambu Express Terminal; it departs daily at 10:20 a.m. It’s another 40 minutes by local bus from Seosan to Ganwoldo.
by Ines Cho