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Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju island

78 Seongsan-ri, Seongsan-eup, Seogwipo, Jeju-do, South Korea
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the freshest sea urchin you'll ever have... Seogwipo  South Korea

the freshest sea urchin you'll ever have...

Slightly sweet, with pleasantly salty mineral umami--that's what the yellow-orange goo from sea-urchins tastes like. The fresher the better for this roe--and if you visit the coast of Jeju island, the legendary "haenyo" women divers will have just plucked these spiny balls from the sea floor minutes before your arrival.

Wildly popular with visitors from nearby Japan, where the delicacy is called "uni," Jeju islanders call it "gusal;" mainland Koreans refer to it as "seong-geh."

I had just had some in a bowl of seaweed soup for lunch when my wife and I accompanied my mother down to the rocky cove beneath Seongsan Ilchlulbong crater to watch the haenyo emerge from the sea. My mother, who is Korean, had just retired, and was visiting a corner of her own country that she had never seen. Volcanic Jeju-do is a subtropical island with a culture distinct from the rest of Korea--"the island of wind, women, and rocks." The haenyo are dwindling as younger women seek urban jobs; many of the divers are in their 50's and 60's and still dive without oxygen tanks, harvesting shellfish cooperatively...

My mother struck up a conversation with one of the women as my wife and I soaked up the salt air. The haenyo, still dripping in their wetsuits, were spooning out the roe--and suddenly, a couple of spoons were being waved in our faces--a free sample! Fresh from the sea-floor, served by living legends--not a taste that fades quickly...