The side-walking crab in its various forms is considered a delicacy in Korea. Adding crab to soups or to seafood braised pots increases the value and the taste of these dishes. Even simple street foods like odeng (fish cakes on a skewer that are boiled in broth) can become a gourmet dish just by adding a single crab. Crabs in Korea are considered high cuisine.
There is even a Korean saying about the potent flavor of crabs: you can eat a whole cow without anyone noticing, but eat even a single crab, and the whole village will know. But the real meaning of the proverb is that it is not easy to hide the smell of crab. I mean you can give it a try yourself. After eating crabs with your hands, notice how long that smell of the sea will linger on your fingertips.
From Common Food to the Food of Kings
Interestingly enough, crabs were not always held in such high regard. Originally, it was just a commoner’s food. It took a king to change this opinion. According to a historical record, in 940 AD Korean King Wang Geon was offered a giant crab by his subjects. At first the king refused it for it looked unappetizing like a giant spider. But, after trying it, he fell in love with the taste and sent his subjects on a quest to find the best crabs in his kingdom.
The subjects discovered that the best crabs in Korea were found on the east coast. Those were large crabs that spanned the length of two out-stretched palms. The large Korean crabs have long legs and claws and their tough shells are covered with short black hairs.
Two cities on the east coast of Korea claim that this type of crab originated there. It has been given the distinction “Yeongdeok Crab”after the city of Yeongdeok, but this is under scrutiny from the neighboring city of Uljin. The competition for having the status of the place of the crab’s origin has led to animosity between the two cities and the fishermen. When the popular Korean drama Daejanggum stated that these black haired crabs were from Yeongdeok, citizens from Uljin sent angry letters and protested the TV station that broadcasted the show.
Interestingly, the cities are not far apart so it is possible that the crabs could have easily walked from one city to the next. But I don’t think it would be wise to tell the two cities about that.
Both cities, Uljin and Yeongdeok, have a crab festival, usually in March or April. The festivals bring people from all over Korea that wish for a taste of these giant local crabs. The crabs are simply steamed. Koreans use scissors instead of hammers to cut through the tough shell to extract the meat. The most sought after crabs are the female crabs that are full of golden eggs.
The Korean name for crab is daege or bamboo crab because the legs of the crab look like bamboo stalks.
12 Different Flavors and How to Eat Crab
Koreans believe that the crab has 12 different flavors. To best enjoy the crab, Koreans recommend to first eat the claws and then suck the meat and juice from the legs. After that, the crab is carefully opened―keeping the juice in the top shell. The juice is mixed with rice, roasted seaweed, and sesame oil to make a delicious crab flavored rice. The insides are then carefully picked out. The remaining shells can be used to make a delicious soup.
There are three different grades of crab: gold, green, and black and they are distinguished by the innards. The gold is the most highly sought for it has the eggs.
Another Korean crab specialty dish is called ganjang-gejang. This crab, preserved in soy sauce, is a very unique food, hardly found anywhere else in the world. Ganjang-gejang has a nickname of a “rice thief” because the taste is so overwhelmingly delicious and salty that it can easily make you eat up all your rice quickly. The special area for ganjang-gejang in Seoul is at Sinsa Station.
Finally, one of my favorite dishes is kkotge-tang which is a Korean crab soup. Smaller crabs are boiled in a seafood broth. It is full of crab flavor with a pungent mix of spicy and fresh flavors. The crabs in the soup soak up all this amazing flavor and stay hot so you can take your time as you pick out the meat in the shells. This dish is best in winter when the female crabs are full of eggs and it goes great with a bowl of hot rice.
Let me end this crab story with one more Korean metaphor: Maparame geneun gamchudeut. This means, “like a crab hiding its eyes when the wind is blowing from ahead.” The saying is often used when something is eaten very quickly because it is extremely delicious or the person is very hungry.
Recommended Restaurants for Crab in Seoul
#27-1, Pro Building, Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul
Wonjo Masan Halmae Ganjang-gejang
#20-8, Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul
#1655-17, Sindorim-dong, Gwanak-gu, Seoul
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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