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Where snow crab is king : For the freshest pick, head to a market or an auction in Uljin County

Feb 25,2017
Snow crabs being steamed. The orange color usually becomes more red when they are cooked. [JOONGANG ILBO]
After steamed crabmeat, diners are usually served fried rice with intestines and leftover crabmeat. [JOONGANG ILBO]
Many seafood options are available in Uljin. Spicy soup with crabmeat, middle, cleans the palate after steamed meat, and others can go for kalguksu (thicker noodles) with clams, top, or a bowl of rice with raw fish, bottom. [LEE SUN-MIN]
From left: Visitors to Uljin Snow Crab Festival taking photos with crab-shaped structures in town. This year’s festival will start March 2 and will last for four days; Uljin Daegae Park features a large structure shaped like a snow crab for those looking to get a glimpse of the East Sea and commemorate their time with a picture with a snow crab; Local merchants and restaurateurs gather at Jukbyeon Harbor in Uljin for a daily auction to buy crabs. The auction usually starts at 8 a.m. and lasts for an hour or two. [LIETTO, LEE SUN-MIN]
ULJIN COUNTY, North Gyeongsang - If you’ve ever hunted for snow crabs in Seoul to steam at home to eat, you might have noticed that there are rarely snow crabs caught in Korean waters available, even at wholesale fish markets. The difficulty in keeping them fresh is one of the major reasons merchants in Korea don’t get them. And there aren’t enough to be distributed to shops in Seoul, merchants at Noryangjin Wholesale Fisheries Market say.

That means you need to pack your bags and head to an area where snow crabs are caught if you want to eat the local catch. Uljin in North Gyeongsang is one of the prime spots for snow crabs and now is a good time to go. Crabs are in season, which will end soon when the temperature gets too high. Snow crabs in Korea can only be caught from November to May, but those caught too early in the winter or too late usually don’t taste as good and aren’t fat enough. Usually ones caught around Jan. 15 on the Lunar calendar, which fell on Feb. 11 this year, taste best. Crabmeat fresh from a recent capture usually has a softer texture and tastes sweeter.

There are more ways to learn about crabs in Uljin than just going to a local restaurant. Fish markets near Hupo Harbor or Jukbyeon Harbor let diners choose their own crabs. You can bring them back home to share. If going to a fish market is too much, some restaurants will even mail them to an address within Korea. If you want to see more about how the crabs are sold to restaurants and markets, go to a daily auction of snow crabs at Jukbeyon Harbor at 8 a.m. Crabs are usually caught the night before, and if the weather forecast isn’t so rosy, boats usually don’t go out, so check with any local restaurant or a market about the status of an auction.

Is Yeongdeok or Uljin the best place to go? The quick answer is that the two regions basically have the same crabs. Boats from Yeongdeok and Ulijin all pass an underwater rock called Wangdolcho out in the sea where millions of crabs live.

The rock is about 23 kilometers (14 miles) from Hupo Harbor in Uljin, and the rock itself is about 21 kilometers long from its east end to west, and 54 kilometers from south end to north. It’s more an underwater mountain than a rock. If a boat from Yeongdeok catches them, they become Yeongdeok snow crabs and those captured by Uljin boats become Uljin snow crabs.

Yeongdeok is better known as a snow crab destination than Uljin or anywhere else, including Sokcho or Samcheok in Gangwon, because all the crabs were brought into Yeongdeok and it acted as a transportation hub in the past to deliver crabs to other inland regions. But as the transportation network has improved, Uljin also been put on the map by many as a snow crab destination.

Since the county is by the ocean, don’t worry about getting sick of eating crabs as there are many other seafood options as well.

What to buy and how to steam

Many people often look for big crabs when they go out to buy, thinking the bigger ones taste better. However, locals say only visitors search for the bigger ones. Usually, male crabs are caught as they are bigger and females are saved for future production. Crabs whose back shell is not longer than 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) are legally prohibited for capture. The price of a crab varies daily, depending on how many each boat brings back and the condition of the crabs brought in. The owner of local restaurant Wangdol Susan recommends going for ones that are priced 20,000 won ($17.70) to 25,000 won each rather than the larger ones that can go for 40,000 won at a restaurant. Unless you’re a huge crab eater, one crab is usually enough with fried rice served in a crab shell and soup.

Snow crabs are generally eaten without any sauce as the crab meat is already well-seasoned with salt water. The most popular way to eat them is to steam them. When you steam them, make sure you pour a bowl of hot water over them.

It is important to have their stomach, or the whiter side, see the ceiling, or all the intestines inside may fall out. Adding a little alcohol to boiling water might help with the fishy smell. Usually it takes about 15 minutes for crabs to properly cook. Put all the small legs that are too hard to open into a bowl of spicy soup or ramen to make the broth taste better.

Go all out at a festival

Visitors to the Uljin area might have easier time getting quality crabs in early March, and probably a bit more with the same budget. The Uljin Snow Crab Festival, which was set up to promote the county as a destination for snow crab, kicks off its 18th edition on March 2 for four days. Visitors can buy crabs in an auction at the festival for a discount and in storefronts where dishes made with crabmeat will be sold. Besides simple steamed crabs, noodles and rice bowls with crabmeat on top will also be available, and even raw meat.

There will also be many crab-themed games. Take your chance to win a box of crabs while you are in Uljin. The county office is holding a promotion. Anyone with receipts of more than 20,000 won spent at a restaurant or for lodging can drop them into a raffle box at the festival venue at Hupo Harbor Hanmaeum Plaza. Include your contact information. Sixty others will receive local food ingredients.

For information about the Uljin Snow Crab Festival, go to www.uljin.go.kr/eng or call (054) 789-6901.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]