In Korea, people are very conscious of which foods are taste the best in each season. Maybe it was just me, but in Colorado the only time I was concerned about food being in season was when the peach trees in our backyard produced (or not) in the summer and we had to fend off squirrels if we wanted any peaches. Or in the fall when the vine covering the backyard fence between us and our neighbors left us so many grapes that we were giving them away (which fortunately, the squirrels weren’t interested in).
But Koreans always seem to be hyper aware of the best foods to eat at any given time. There are also specific traditions, like eating red bean porridge on winter solstice. I’ve been most surprised to find out that there are in-season foods in the winter. Strawberries are a big one (grown indoors, of course), but the star of today’s post is crab. Specifically 대게, or literally “big crab.”
So one Saturday, my host family and I headed to Ulsan (about one and a half hours from Gimhae) for a crab feast. You HAVE to eat king crab in the winter, when it’s tastiest, so we stragglers were pushing it by going in mid-March.
After the long car ride – and hitting heavy traffic when we got into Ulsan – we drove up to a busy area with nearby ports. Young men advertising their restaurants called out as we drove into the parking lot. One man gave out free canned coffee with restaurant ads taped onto them, but my host mom adamantly refused, even then he reached into the car window to give them to her. If we took them, she said, we’d be stuck going to that restaurant.
Right along the edge of the parking lot we faced a loooong row of identical-looking crab restaurants, each with workers out front, working hard to attract customers. Somehow my host family decisively chose one (although later they recognized a worker at another restaurant and promised to go to that one next time). The process began by choosing from the selection of crabs in front of the restaurant.
Our first victims…
My host dad figured everything out with the staff out front, deciding on what kind of crab and how many we could stuff into our faces – which were then weighed and priced. According to this person, a 2kg king crab was 76,000 or around $74! But I’m pretty sure we had snow crab. Hopefully the price wasn’t anywhere near this, because we ate something like six crabs, but like most times with my host family, I coasted along not fully aware of any details. The following week, whenever I told a coworker I’d gone to eat crab (대게), they always brought up the price. Hmm…
A note-worthy side-point, though, is to think about the reality of living with a host family in Korea whose income might (far) exceed that of your real family. Obviously a family that’s willing to host a stranger for an entire year is going to be relatively well-off. Sometimes it doesn’t always seem like there’s a big difference; when I describe how my family has a house, a front yard and a backyard, my life in America sounds luxurious, but the standards of wealth are different. The majority of Koreans, rich, poor or in-between, live in apartments. But I don’t have enough complete thoughts on this topic to write much yet.
Meanwhile, at the crab restaurant…we went inside and waited. A long time. The banchan (side dishes) were different than any other restaurant I’ve been to – Ulsan or crab restaurant-specific dishes, maybe? – and also included “sea squirts” which I’d never heard of until my host mom pulled out her smartphone dictionary to translate. Granted, I am from Colorado, so the ocean is very much full of mystery.
Side dishes and sea squirts (right picture, in the center)
This particular variety of sea squirt is also called a sea pineapple.
So we waited. And waited. We waited longer than I’ve ever had to wait for food in Korea (I guess it wasn’t really that long). But that’s because they do ALL THE HARD WORK FOR YOU.
The crab arrived beautifully cut up, with the shell on each segment of leg already sliced. Just peel and eat. No need to bother with those ineffective, difficult nutcrackers, but just in case you have any trouble, they give you scissors! And a special crab fork! I’ve never enjoyed crab so effortlessly in my life.
A feast for your eyes:
And just because…
To round out our trip we stopped by a Holly’s Coffee and my host sisters and I frolicked on the beach.