“Is this the delicacy they say they used to offer to the king of korea?!”, were my first words after looking at the table of alien looking food in front of me. That horror was partly because I am from a country where seafood other than fish or shrimps is not very common in most parts and in places where it is, raw or live seafood is out of question. Being selected as a scholarship student from Pakistan on Korean government scholarships program, I was more than excited to explore South Korea; especially I was most interested in visiting what they call as one of the seven natural wonders of the world “Jeju Island” which boasts three of UNESCOs World Natural Heritage sites as Hallasan, the 1950m extinct volcano which last erupted 1000 years ago; Geomun Oreum Lava Tubes; and Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called Sunrise Peak, formed by hydrovolcanic eruptions about 5000 years ago!
In my first year in South Korea, I was studying Korean Language with other KGSP fellows from various countries in the beautiful Keimyung University located in Daegu which is a city famous for its apples among other things. While we were there, we got to learn a lot about Korean culture, traditions and food. I was particularly interested in travelling and discovering more on my own so when it was announced that we were going to a trip to Jeju Island, the largest island in SouthKorea, I was beyond jubilant. Not to mention it was fully funded so the joy was doubled.
When I first caught a glimpse of Jeju Island as we were descending on the Korea Strait towards Jeju International Airport, I could feel my excitement to get a first-hand experience of the three things Jeju is famous for: Haenyeo referring to independent strong female divers, Pawee (Rocks) and Param (Wind). But instead, our delightful Korean teachers who came with us, they diverted our attention to what they described as a very lavish dinner, a delicacy of Jeju and a vital part of Jeju food culture that they had prepared for all of us. Being a self-proclaimed gourmand, I unconsciously started waiting for the mysterious delicacy that was going to come up later that day.
As the sun was setting in the east sea, it was finally time for our group to move for dinner. The day had been a long one first travelling from Daegu to Jeju Island and then exploring a popular tourist spot Hallim park for a few hours. It was a lavish looking traditional Korean style restaurant. My three months in Korea had taught me that Koreans like to eat while sitting on wooden floors or chairs with no legs while the food is served on tables that are shorter than average height tables. So I was not surprised when I saw atleast 10 long rows of such tables in one large room to accommodate us. The food was to be cooked in hotpots that were present in the center of each table. There were lots of side dishes including corns with melted cheese on top, crab, lettuce leaves, small dried fish, beans in soy sauce but the main dish Jeonbuk wasn’t there yet. Not being familiar with this Korean word, I was not sure what to expect for. There was a stir of anticipation in the air that felt very like excitement. Me and my friends were making wild guesses. Friends coming from Indonesia and Malaysia had lots of ideas because of the abundance of seafood in their cuisine.
Jeonbuk arrived. It was a slimy looking small circular sea creature in a shell and 7 or 8 of them were stacked in one plate. Jeonbuk (Abalones) are marine shells and although they are not that common of a seafood but in places where it is consumed, abalone is widely considered as a desirable food and is consumed raw or cooked in many cultures especially in East Asia including South Korea. It is a creature of culinary legend. It is because abalone is only found in the cleanest waters of the ocean feeding on seaweed that gives it an elevated stature of “King of Shellfish”. It is considered the most expensive food in Jeju due to its living environment and nutritional value. And following the aforementioned reasons, this was supposed to be a mouthwatering delicacy for around 120 foreigners from 70 countries who just arrived in South Korea some 3 months back. While for some it was, for me it was not. I am usually very open to trying new things but this time the sight was too odd for me especially because the abalone was alive and moving in the plate. I am just not used to having my food all alive and pumping on the dinner table. But wait! That is not what made this experience such a memorable one for me. It was the scene that came next that completely put me off. One of my Korean language saunsangneem picked one from the plate and put it in her mouth just like that! I could see her savoring every bite.
Slowly, a few others followed her and most of them actually appreciated the taste they were experiencing. Some of them started cooking abalone stew in the hot pot located at the center of each table. A wide range of ingredients were available to add in the stew ranging from vegetables to noodles. Also each one of us was served a small bowl of rice to go with it. Not to mention that the tables were decorated, apart from the aforementioned side dishes, with more than 1 types of kimchee on the menu. Coming from a country where having a meal without rich traditional spices was not a meal and eating food with no or minimal spices was a sin, I was still in the process of getting used to Korean food which I actually found to be much more healthy and easy on the spices. While I really liked toekpokki, ramyeon, bibimbap, and pokkembap ; unfortunately I was finding it hard to eat this very different styled stew along with plain white rice, especially while half of my food was still wriggling on dishes just beside the hotpot.
As I looked at my favorite teacher gratifying her palate, she smiled back at me to encourage me to atleast try. And I did try the cooked one. Our teachers told us quite a lot about abalones and how most Koreans never miss an opportunity to relish them while in Jeju. And even for the locals who grew up on the shore watching Haenyeo catching abalone daily, abalone is not a common luxury. I also learned that in olden times, it was presented to the kings as a tribute and still many Koreans look at it as a precious meal. It is usually made for special occasions or for illnesses as it is believed to symbolize the “vitality of the ocean” being rich in proteins, vitamins and many minerals. It helps in improving health and gaining stamina.
Those two hours of me struggling with easing myself to trying the cooked abalone were one of the longest two hours I ever had. And I was not alone. While half of our friends were relishing the food, other half were sitting in plain horror staring at the food while our hungry stomachs were making music that could be heard even in the crowded room. Having said that, this dinner was bound to be a memorable dinner for all; for some because they saw an eating culture they found very strange like me and for others because they got a chance to eat double their share. Alas, it was time to go back to our hotel where we were staying. The ride to that place was also a very long one as anything you do on empty stomach is often longer and more difficult than with a satisfied stomach. Now since our teachers saw that many of their students didn’t have a proper dinner, they were so kind that they arranged ramyeon, milk and fruits for us back in the hotel. I never thought I could be as happy to see milk and fruits as I was in that moment. So, my night of misery finally came to an end!
On our last day, just before departing from Jeju, I yet again crossed paths with abalone but this time abalone was more familiar looking. It was abalone rice porridge known as Jeonbokjuk, the “king of porridges”. Now as much as I suffered the other day and live abalone was the culprit of my suffering, the hot and steamy porridge that was being served by the lady at the restaurant looked yummy. Maybe because we just came from a ferry ride from Marado Island in the chilly wind of November or maybe I did not have the energy to starve before our trip back home; I decided to give a shot to it. With the first bite melting in my mouth, I knew I had missed my chance the other day from having an ultimate experience of tasting one of the finest delicacies. The porridge was creamy, delicious and had that rich taste that I knew instantly to attribute to abalone magic since I had by now tasted various kinds of porridges in Korean cuisine to identify the difference.
I agree that while it was not love at first sight but maybe it was just because I was not used to eating my food that was still breathing or maybe I did not have the guts to eat the thing alive. But now after having lived three and a half years in Korea, I am dead sure the story would be much different if I was to sit in front of that table again. I will be at ease looking at it while it wriggles in the plate, happily cook my abalone and most definitely fall in love with it. One of the things that I have promised myself to do if I ever visit Jeju is to eat abalone and experience the feeling of a Korean king! Or that of the Chinese emperor Gin Shi Hwang who the legends tell travelled to Jeju in search of eternal youth and upon discovering Abalone of Jeju declared it as “Elixir of Youth”.