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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Forget fine dining, Korean winters offer oysters aplenty

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Steamed oysters [LEE JIAN]
Steamed oysters [LEE JIAN]

Oysters may be a luxury reserved for special occasions in some parts of the world, but in Korea during wintertime, it is oyster galore.

The shellfish are tossed into practically any hearty local dish imaginable, alongside kimchi, rice, porridge, soup, and even instant ramen. Seafood restaurants serve mountains of some 40 oysters on a steamer. There is no fussy lime-squeezing, shiny silver trays, or expensive wine — just a lot of people busy shucking away and tossing them down.

Oysters are comparatively much cheaper in Korea than in other regions, especially the United States and Europe.

One oyster costs around 300 won (24 cents) to 500 won in Korea, while it costs about 2,000 won in the U.S. and about 9,000 won in France.

The reason for this price disparity, according to 2019 data from the OECD, is that Korea is the world’s second-largest producer of oysters following China. The Korean Statistical Information Service reported that the country produced 305,914 tons worth of oysters in 2021. This number takes into account only farmed oysters and does not include wild ones.

Farmed oysters tend to grow faster and larger than wild oysters and have slightly less of a briny flavor. Of the nearly 306,000 tons of Korea’s harvested oysters, 86 percent come from seaside cities in South Gyeongsang such as Tongyeong and Geoje, and Goseong County, according to the Korea Maritime Institute.

Oysters are inside kimchi as well [JOONGANG ILBO]
Oysters are inside kimchi as well [JOONGANG ILBO]

Mass production of these shellfish is possible in Korea due to favorable weather and environmental conditions which allow the country to grow oysters not only in its vast tidal flats and subtidal areas, which is where oysters in the West are usually farmed but also in the open sea.

According to the National Institute of Fisheries Science, seawater between Korean islands has fewer waves and lower waters, allowing the fishermen to grow oysters in a much larger area than in other countries. Local oyster farmers use a method called suspended longlines, which float a buoy in the sea with a string of young oysters attached. They remain submerged underwater until they grow to market size, which is about 7 to 10 centimeters (2.8 to 3.9 inches). The oysters grow naturally, with no chemicals or artificial feed. It is the most common way to farm oysters in Korea and dates back to the 1960s.

The parts of the ocean where the oyster farms are set up are nationally protected from pollution. The farms also go through biannual on-site inspections by U.S. Food and Drug Administration evaluation officials, made mandatory from the 1972 MOU Regarding the Safety and Quality of Fresh and Frozen Molluscan Shellfish with the U.S. and Korean governments.

Some 40 to 70 percent of homegrown oysters get exported annually, mainly to Japan and the United States, the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corporation reported.

But because of its large overall production, Korea has been able to incorporate oysters into many of its own dishes in the winter.

January is often deemed the best time of year to eat oysters in Korea.

“As the temperature drops, the meat inside the oyster shells fills up along with plenty of glycogen, which makes oysters during the coldest month, often January, the tastiest and nutrient-rich,” said researcher Lee Si-woo of the National Institute of Fisheries Science.

Gulgukbap, which is soup with oysters and rice [LEE JIAN]
Gulgukbap, which is soup with oysters and rice [LEE JIAN]

Gulgukbap, which translates to oyster rice soup, is one of Korea’s beloved wintertime dishes. It is essentially kelp broth with fresh oysters and cooked rice tossed inside, often served while still actively boiling inside an earthenware bowl.

The restaurant Gwanghwamun Gulbat, which translates to Gwanghwamun Oyster Field, is a small seafood heaven, hidden on the basement floor of an apartment complex in Jongno District, central Seoul.

Inside the modest eatery, there are over 10 dishes that use oysters, including fresh oysters, oyster tteokguk (rice cake soup), oyster sundubu jjigae (soybean and curd stew), and oyster ramyeon. The venue prides itself in only using seafood that has been caught the same day, and some of its offerings may change with the passage of the winter oyster season.

Its gulgukbap (9,000 won) is served with small pieces of tofu, seaweed, chives, and radish. But the oysters are by far the star ingredient of the dish as their ocean-like mineral notes are the highlight of the soup. Those in the know order gulgukbap with a larger serving of oysters for 11,000 won.

Another popular oyster dish at Gwanghwamun Gulbat is oyster albap (10,000 won). It is hot rice served sizzling inside an earthenware bowl with fresh oysters, fish roe, dry seaweed, kimchi, carrots, crab meat, and sesame seeds.

Gul Albab, or oyster and fish roe rice [LEE JIAN]
Gul Albab, or oyster and fish roe rice [LEE JIAN]

Also in Jongno District, very close to the Jongno 3-ga subway station, there is a small alleyway full of eateries that sell gul bossam as the main dish, which is steamed pork with raw oysters. Restaurants often serve gul bossam with lettuce, raw garlic, peppers, and various types of kimchi.

It is a hefty dish that is enjoyed at home as well, especially during the kimchi-making season at the start of winter. Home cooks put pork belly inside a steamer while they make kimchi, and set aside some raw oysters before tossing most of them inside the red kimchi filling. Once the kimchi is neatly packed inside large plastic containers, ready for fermentation to do its magic, it is time for gul bossam.

The tender steamed pork is sliced and eaten with the oysters that were set aside earlier and wrapped all together with a piece of crisp kimchi.

Eoriguljeot or salted oysters that have been fermented for some three days. [JOONGANG ILBO]
Eoriguljeot or salted oysters that have been fermented for some three days. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Oysters are also made into a rich and salty side dish called eoriguljeot. It is salted oysters that have been fermented for around three days.

Kang’s Korean Pancake Diner (translated) in Yongsan District, central Seoul, offers oyster jeon (18,000 won) cooked to golden perfection as a seasonal menu during winter, and a plate of eoriguljeot (7,000 won).

Jeon, often deceivingly described as Korean-style pancakes, is a pan-fried or battered fritter-type local food.

Shin Hye-won, 28, is a regular customer at the eatery and said that she likes to eat the oyster jeon by wrapping a piece of red eoriguljeot around it.

“A mouthful of oysters is just pure joy,” she said. “It is one of the best parts of spending winter in Seoul.”

Gul jeon, which are oyster Korean fritters [LEE JIAN]
Gul jeon, which are oyster Korean fritters [LEE JIAN]

BY LEE JIAN [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]

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