TONGYEONG, South Gyeongsang Province -- For a foodie, enjoying fresh seafood is a must when lounging near the coast.
A visit to the southern port city of Tongyeong, a four-hour drive from Seoul, is a chance to devour a wide range of seafood.
Tongyeong is like no other port city here. It has many small islands nearby, and the surrounding waters are warm and shallow.
Despite its abundance of fresh seafood, Tongyeong is perhaps best known for chungmu gimbap -- finger-sized rolls of cooked rice served with marinated squid -- and ggulbbang, red bean paste doughnuts dipped in syrup.
But you can have chungmu gimbap in Myeong-dong, Seoul. And ggulbbang? There are better sweet treats.
Sea pineapple bibimbap
Meongge (sea pineapple) bibimbap (Im Eun-byel/The Korea Herald)
Some may think of meongge bibimbap as an ordinary mixed rice dish topped with sea pineapple.
That is true in a way, but the scent and flavors are from another world.
Meongge, also known as sea pineapple, is a type of sea squirt with orange flesh. It is soft and slippery, and its scent and taste are redolent of the ocean.
Unlike other varieties, sea pineapple bibimbap does not require chili paste because the sea squirt itself is salty enough to satisfy the palate. Mixed with unseasoned laver, chopped vegetables and seaweed, the sea squirt bursts inside the mouth as it emits a marine aroma.
As meongge is often farmed in warm, shallow waters, more than 70 percent of meongge in Korea comes from Tongyeong.
Restaurants in Tongyeong serve other varieties of bibimbap as well, such as those topped with sea urchin or oysters.
Flounder and mugwort soup
Dodari ssukguk, flounder and mugwort soup (Im Eun-byel/The Korea Herald)
Flounder and mugwort soup, or dodari ssukguk in Korean, is a springtime delicacy.
When the weather turns warm and spring flowers start to bloom, you know it is the season for dodari, or ridge-eye flounder.
Ridge-eye flounder has flavorful white meat with a hint of savory sweetness and a soft yet chewy texture. In spring, flounder is in season with fatty meat.
What makes the dish even better in spring is mugwort. Tongyeong mugwort is appreciated for its natural saltiness thanks to the sea breeze. The natural sweetness of the fish is balanced by the saltiness of the vegetable.
Cooked with fresh mugwort, the soup has a clean finish and is great as a hangover cure. The fresh scent of mugwort fills the mouth and nose upon a sip of the soup.
Sliced raw mackerel (Im Eun-byel/The Korea Herald)
For a raw fish dish that reflects the locality, try raw mackerel.
Though mackerel is an everyday fish in Korea, it is not easy to find the fish served raw.
As the fish dies shortly after being caught, mackerel does not last long out of the water, making it unfit to be served raw in most cases.
But at the island Yokijido, an hour away from Tongyeong by ferry, mackerel suitable to be eaten raw is reared at the island’s many mackerel farms.
Farmed mackerel, more accustomed to limited space than those in the wild, can live for a few hours in fish tanks.
Mackerel contains relatively more fat than other fish. The savory meat leaves a hint of a pleasant oily aftertaste. It is satisfying to eat a slice of raw mackerel wrapped in laver with garlic.
The raw fish can be enjoyed with spicy rockfish stew or raw anchovy salad. Rockfish and anchovy are local specialties of Tongyeong, too.
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