Clambake central: Oido’s pier provides endless shellfish for the grillKorean spring days may start off hazy, dusty and barely warm enough for us to shed our down jackets, but after months of dreary winter, it feels like a fresh beginning ― a time to celebrate life again.
Our way of celebrating the year’s first warm days was to get out of the hectic city, enjoy the weather and eat something good, but why not make it a bit more exciting than usual? Knowing that the grilled shellfish restaurants popping up all over Seoul were being supplied by the piers and mudflats along the west coast, we decided to drive out to the Oido islet, about a 90-minute drive out of Seoul.
For those who can neither speak nor read Korean, driving here can be a tricky business ― even Koreans get lost misreading signs. Signs do come with English translations, but they seem to be turn up in odd places, often misleading the driver.
If you’re heading out from downtown Seoul, check these key spots: Seongsan Bridge, Second Gyeongin Highway and Wolgot Interchange. Once you’re in Wolgot, just follow the signs that lead to Oido, where you’ll find a large white-and-blue arch straddling the road into town.
At first, the pier was so high that we couldn’t see the sea from the road, but after parking the car, we were able to walk up a few flights of stairs to reach the pier, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) along the vast mudflat, lined with occasional lampposts and benches.
Opposite the vast gray mudflat was a typical Korean-style commercial zone with gaudy bright signs, and most of them advertising touristy restaurants. According to one restaurant owner, Oido has 180 stores, and among them roughly 100 are restaurants specializing in jogae-gui, grilled sea shells, and hoe, raw fish.
As it turned out, Oido is the biggest gourmet district in Siheung city in Gyeonggi province, southwest of Seoul. For years, the islet has been famous for its seafood, both fresh and cooked ― particularly shellfish and jjukkumi, or baby octopus, which are caught around the islet. On weekends year-round, tourists, mostly people from Seoul and nearby cities, came in for a mouthful of Oido’s grilled shellfish, octopus dishes and haemul kalguksu, or seafood noodle soups.
The Oido islet was linked to an artificial landbridge in 1922, and with the support of Siheung city and Gyeonggi province, in 2005, Oido was renovated into a special gourmet district. One of the streets is designated as a “Model Street of Food and Drinking Culture.” Siheung city and Gyeonggi province provided 15 million won (about $16,000) and 2 million won, respectively, for the Oido renovation project.
Beach restaurant fires up shellfish from ‘somewhere’
For years, Seoul’s food-lovers have known Oido as a place for a day-trip or weekend get-away thanks to the islet’s delicious grilled shellfish and soju, served in any of the hundreds of tents that lined the beach. But since a big beach clean-up swept through the area about five years ago, there hasn’t been a single food tent in sight along the pier now.
A large three-story restaurant, Keunson (meaning “large or generous hand”), located right along the islet’s gourmet district, used to be one of these food tents, otherwise known as pojangmacha, and now it is one of the touristy restaurants that basically sell the same dishes: jogae-gui (grilled shellfish), haemul-kalguksu (noodle soup cooked with assorted seafood) and hoe (raw fish). The Keunson restaurant, along with many others, has large window panes designed for a great view of the vast gray mudflat that stretches to the horizon. The restaurant’s top floor is outdoor terrace, complete with parasols.
Well-situated oceanfront restaurants like these in France or Japan could easily be exotic destinations for world travelers, but the Korean restaurants in Oido are far from romantic and beautiful ― unless of course you’re so in the mood that everything seems romantic.
The first floor of a typical Oido seafood restaurant, such as Keunson, invariably displays large fish tanks, and the interior is clean and modest, with basic Formica tables and plastic chairs and linoleum floors.
An order of grilled fish (50,000 won) is two large plates of assorted shellfish, some of which are indigenous to Korea (hong-jogae, mindeul-jogae, cham-jogae and kal-jogae) as well as some popular bivalves (dongjuk (shortneck clam variety), garibi-jogae (scallops), seokhwa (oysters)). They were grilled on a couple of coal briquettes at each table.
When asked about the origin of each shellfish, the matronly waitress said that except for dongjuk, the smallest brown shells buried in the bottom layer of the piles, all came from “somewhere else,” meaning Korea’s east coast.
Suddenly our high expectations for tearing into the freshest catch on the islet vanished. We asked if Oido had its own seafood market, and she said there was one out back (more on that later).
Set over the high flames, the shellfish began to sizzle, smoke and crack open one by one. Amid the spectacle, we didn’t notice that we were overcooking the meat, so the frustrated waitress began doing the cooking and cutting up the seafood. Dipping one steaming hot, plump morsel of scallops into wasabi-spiked soy sauce and red chili sauce, we were able to taste the subtle differences in the taste of different shellfish. Kal-jogae, named after its blade-like shells, tasted the most tender, the least bitter of the viscera. The mild-tasting dongjuk shells had a lot of water inside, however. All the shellfish were reasonably fresh ― especially considering that they were from out of town.
To the side, the woman also cooked a dozen prawns over a bed of sea salt. The prawns were fresh, though not unlike those sold in fine seafood restaurants in Seoul.
When we placed a couple of oysters on the fire, the waitress came back and snapped at us: “I told you to leave them alone!” She wrapped them up in aluminum foil, put them back on the fire and we watched them crackle wildly. The cooked oysters didn’t taste good at all ― another disappointment.
Dining in Oido requires a certain tourist form of multitasking. On one hand, the fiesta of flavor on the grill demands constant attention, while on the other hand the outdoor scenery is too cool to miss ― the tide came in so quickly the vast mudflat turned into ocean before our food was fully cooked.
The toast of the day was the bottle of bokbunja wine (10,000 won), a traditional Korean liquor made from wild berries, which went well with the shellfish and the spring-picnic mood.
We even managed to sample a vat full of noodle soup (5,000 won) topped with all kinds of shells and baby octopus, which is very tasty and a good deal, as it comes with a bowl of barley rice and side dishes.
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (031) 431-2989
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 05:00 a.m. (Closed at 1 a.m. on Sundays)
Credit cards: Accepted.
Looking for a local seafood market, we ventured on foot at first and then by car around Oido’s commercial blocks.
The islet does have its own seafood market, but to our disappointment, the merchants seemed to have the show-and-tell sort of large fish tanks that gave it a touristy air. Giant Alaskan crabs that crawled slowly inside a blue tank, for example, were labeled, “Origin: China.”
We toured around the two market buildings, both of which house about 200 stores, until we came across a fairly large store called Geomok, which sold crabs, abalone, octopus and seashells kept live inside crystal clear seawater tanks.
Three housewives there were buying 10,000-won ($11) baby octopuses and hinted that we should try the fresh bivalves from Oido.
We spotted the same kind of dongjuk we had eaten at the shellfish restaurant and asked the price: 3,000 won for a one-kilogram (2.2-pound) bag.
But just when I was about to place an order, the store owner stopped me. “No, no, that’s the cheap stuff!” she shouted. Pointing at greenish shells that were twice as large as the dongjuk, she said, “If you’re visiting Oido, you have to try that.”
Why didn’t they serve that in the restaurant?
“Ha, ha! They’re too expensive, that’s why. No restaurants will serve them,” the woman explained. “It’s the young daehap-jogae,” she said, referring to the large hard-shelled clams sold all over Korea. Outside Korea, the similar shellfish is known as cherrystone clams.
“The meat of the adult daehap-jogae is too tough, but the young ones are really, really tender and tasty.”
Oh, really? How much?
“8,000 won. That’s the most expensive shellfish in Korea, but the best-tasting shellfish, I’m telling you.”
It was a sale.
One of the housewives told me we should try another kind in round, light gray shellfish called ppijugi (“spikey”). The shellfish got its funny name because it sticks out its long, thin gill.
“If you add them to your bean-paste stew, it gives it an amazing flavor. I do that all the time,” the woman said. I could almost see her salivating.
In one corner, the owner of the store was boiling a pot of baby octopus on a portable gas range, which the three housewives had just purchased. She whisked out a handful of shellfish and threw them into the pot, to enhance the zesty taste of the now-purple meat stewing inside.
The women were to have their meal underneath a parasol just outside the market building, washed down by a bottle of Korean soju they purchased from a nearby convenience store.
We could tell they were giddy from their anticipation of a good meal, and told ourselves the real highlight in Oido ― without the great view however ― was the seafood market.
Oido’s fresh shellfish was just as good at home. The first batch out of the large 3-kilogram bag of young cherrystone clams got sauteed in a wok with a splash of oyster sauce, sliced garlic and chopped scallion. The extremely high heat popped the incredibly tough and stubborn clams open wide, revealing some of the most succulent and tasty meat. You can also save the leftovers juice for fried-rice lunch the next day.
The family dinner following the clam-flavored fried rice was devised to highlight the freshest clams: The basic Italian vongole, featuring glossy green shellfish, instead of ordinary shortnecked clams.
To highlight the pasta’s verdant color and vibrant taste, I wanted to run to an Italian garden and pick fresh basil leaves, but the best I could do here was to buy $13-for- a-tiny-jar pesto sauce made with basil, roasted pine nuts, sunflower seeds and extra virgin olive oil. When sauteed in light grapeseed oil, the shellfish churned out about two pints of cream-colored juice that cream-coated the noodles and the green pesto. The steaming pasta exuded an authentic aroma like an Italian garden dipped in the ocean, and turned my parents, who don’t even like pasta, into serious lovers of Italian cooking.
by Ines Cho, Jin Hyun-ju