What is the most popular summer dish served on Jeju? I put this question to Yang Yong Jin, a Jeju food culture expert, when discussing the next destination for our gourmet story. He didn’t hesitate to answer that it’s mulhoe (spicy raw seafood soup).
One of the most commonly served dishes in restaurants during the summer season, mulhoe’s recipe is also very simple, as most Jeju dishes are. Prepare and mix a fresh raw fish or seafood and seasonal raw vegetables with doenjang (fermented soybean paste), and vinegar. Lastly, add water preferably with some ice, then here you go! You can have a nice cold dish in less than half an hour.
The mulhoe dish served in restaurants is most likely to be a red soup because of the red pepper powder and red pepper paste added to the ingredients. Mr. Yang emphasizes that this is not the Jeju traditional style but more influenced by methods found in places like North Gyeongsang province and regions along the east coast of the mainland. Worse, some restaurants might be using glacial acetic acid instead of plain vinegar to make the flavor more acidic, and this doesn’t contain nutrients like vitamins or organic acids which are essential for human bodies.
What makes Jeju-style mulhoe stand out from mainland versions are the ingredients, which include uncooked doenjang and swindari vinegar, while chopped uncooked green pepper is added to taste for a hot flavor. Swindari vinegar is made from fermented barley rice. When refrigerators and electric rice cookers were rare on the island, swindari was a main source of vinegar. The leftover barley rice (which was then a staple food) ferments naturally, particularly during the summer when it is hot. The resourceful Jeju citizens found a way to use the fermented barley rather than throw it away.
Its acidic flavor is stronger than other kinds of vinegar, one of the factors which led to the replacement of swindari vinegar with glacial acetic acid. Swindari vinegar rapidly disappeared from the culinary lives of the islanders when Jeju began to benefit from the convenience of modern living.
Most mainlanders are surprised to see Jeju islanders use raw doenjang when they cook. Doenjang has been a reliable source of protein because it can be consumed year round, and its nutrients sustain less damage when cooked. By the same token, mulhoe is uncooked protein, so when combined with raw doenjang, this makes Jeju-style mulhoe unique.
Produce from the sea accounts for a large portion of food consumed on Jeju. However, seafood can be dangerous in summer, because of the risk of spoilage. Doenjang and vinegar help prevent this spoilage and can stimulate the appetite. Also, it is easy to make, and a large quantity can be prepared to share with many people, making mulhoe a very economical and practical dish. Also, no heat is needed to make it. In a hot summer, this can be the best of reasons.
Its ingredients can be diverse. Traditionally, jari (damselfish), hanchi (mitra squid), and gujaeng-gi (spiny turban shell) are most popular for making mulhoe. More recently, okdom (red horsehead) mulhoe and jeonbok (abalone) mulhoe can be found due to their light and clean flavor. Moreover, jeonbok’s recent popularity due to its health benefits and its ease of handling thanks to abalone farming have given birth to many restaurants where abalone is the specialty.
▲ Jeju culinary expert Yang Yong Jin. Photo by Darryl Coote.
One hot day, Mr. Yang led The Jeju Weekly staff to Soonokine, which specialises in such an abalone dish. The name of the restaurant was taken from the female owner of the restaurant, Soonok. She is that most iconic of Jeju figures, a haenyeo, catching sea produce herself and now even farming abalone, sea cucumber, and many more to meet demand in this popular restaurant. The day we had dinner with Mr. Yang the restaurant was fully booked.
Jeonbok mulhoe and hanchi mulhoe as well as abalone ttukbaegi (earthen pot) appeared to be the most popular dishes, with prices ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 won. Other dishes provided were seasonal raw seafood starting at 20,000 won and reaching 250,000 won for abalone caught at sea.
Mr. Yang said the cook at Soonokine provides generous amounts of abalone, a fact confirmed when we ordered jeonbok mulhoe, jeonbok ttukbaegi, and jeonbok porridge.
Jeonbok mulhoe is now a traditional Jeju food which has been modernized for the benefit of changing tastes. The dish recently began to attract people’s attention due to its simple taste and the health benefits of abalone. Though mulhoe is mainly consumed during summer, you can eat mulhoe all year round.
The abalone served at Soonokine is recommended.
Soonokine Location: Right beside the seawall of Dodu port in Jeju City Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Phone: 064-712-3434
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