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[ICONIC FOOD] Marinated crab is Korea’s secret dish: The strong flavors of gejang have become a hit among foreign visitors

June 24,2019
In the foreground is a plate of gangjang gejang, soy sauce marinated blue crab, while in the background is yangnyeom gejang, spicy sauce marinated crab. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
Gejang (marinated crab) is commonly referred to as a “rice thief” meal because people want to eat more rice in order to enjoy the dish. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
The question I have gotten the most from my overseas foodie friends or food and travel journalists visiting Korea recently is: Where should I go to get gejang?

Gejang is a marinated crab dish that does not often come up when thinking of typical Korean dishes. It is definitely not bulgogi (grilled marinated meat) or bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables), which many Korean travel organizations have promoted over the past decade.

First of all, the dish is raw, and second, it is expensive.

Ironically, because it has not been widely promoted as a popular food by locals to international visitors, it has peaked the curiosity of many. While live octopus has been considered one of the most unique foods that Koreans eat and is often covered in articles and travel programs, gejang is relatively less exciting because it does not look much different from any other raw crab.

Based on a survey done by the Korea Tourism Organization last year, gejang is No. 2 on the list of foods that travelers want to try during their visit to the peninsula. The most curious No. 1 spot went to live octopus. At the moment, it seems to be more popular among Asians than among visitors from Europe or the United States, as it takes time for word of mouth to travel.

The Michelin Guide, which recently gave one star to a local restaurant that mainly serves gejang and listed up many other spots that serve the dish, also contributed in creating interest from foodies around the globe. Even at places known to serve the dish for a cheap price, one serving of gejang costs about 35,000 won ($30), and at some more expensive restaurants, the dish costs around 50,000 won. Some restaurants make gejang with crabs that are the size of one’s palm called dolge as banchan (side dishes).

Gejang can be made by marinating crabs in either spicy sauce or soy sauce. The soy sauce marinated version is called ganjang gejang and is generally more popular for its gamchilmat, also known as umami. The lightly marinated raw flesh is clear, and sometimes a bit grey when soy sauce is added. The spicy version is called yangnyeom gejang and is popular among those looking a kick in their meal.

Documents from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) mention gangjang gejang and how it has been handed down from earlier generations, which has led many experts to speculate that the particular dish must have existed before the 15th century. Yangnyeom gejang is thought to have become more popular in the past century.

While ganjang gejang stays in soy sauce for a few days at least to marinate, the spicy version is consumed almost instantly.

Because both styles have a strong taste, they are known as bapdoduk, meaning rice thief in English. A piece of flesh about the size of your fingernail contains deep crab flavors, and eating an entire crab would easily require an entire a bowl of rice to scarf down. You don’t really need any other banchan to fully enjoy the taste of crab from the very start to finish. One of the tricks to enhance the seafood flavor is to roll the rice with the gejang in variations of dried seaweed, such as gim or gamtae.

Normally, the crabs are opened and cut right at the restaurants. But, if you get take out or delivery, you will need to cut it by yourself. Open the bottom of the crab all the way so that you can see the orange roe, clear flesh and soy sauce on the bottom. Detach the hard back, put it aside and then take the rest with the legs attached. Use scissors to cut the legs into smaller pieces. For multiple bites, cut them into four pieces, or for one clean bite, take one clean bite, and cut them into six pieces. If you get multiple crabs and want to save some for later, separate the soy sauce and the crab first in different containers and put them in the freezer. When you are ready to eat, put the frozen gejang into refrigerator to thaw under the low temperature for about a day.

Since the flesh is almost like light jelly, the easy way to have it is to eat it like you eat jelly in a plastic tube. Take a leg and suck everything up. Use your teeth to lightly break the shell but don’t bite too strong when breaking them up into pieces to avoid having shell pieces getting into your mouth. If feeling a bit too salty, take a spoonful of rice to find balance. Usually, people save the back shell part until the last and add rice to mix with the roe, flesh and even the intestines. Make sure to use one chopstick to scrape everything on the edges.

The best time to get fresh gejang is around May, as that’s when female crabs bear roe. Restaurants usually buy them in bulk and freeze them to supply the roe for the whole year. If you don’t mind not having roe in exchange for a lighter price tag, try buying male crabs when they are in season in the fall.

The extra soy sauce left after you are done eating the crabs can also be kept separately to use as a condiment for other dishes. Even a simple fried egg over rice tastes fancier with a few drops of gejang sauce at home.

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