Amy Chun gives an exclusive look into the foods she came across during her time in Jeju Island for her second installment of “My Food Adventure in South Korea.”
During my once-in-a-lifetime trip to South Korea, I was ecstatic about visiting Jeju Island. Even while living in the States, I was only vaguely familiar with the island, as I often relished imported Jeju tangerines from my local Korean market during the winter months (which are absolutely delectable, by the way). Well-known among Korean citizens, Jeju is home to several UNESCO World Heritage natural sites, and is a popular domestic honeymoon destination for Korean citizens — it’s even referred to by locals as Korean Hawaii.
With these impressive stats in mind, I was extremely curious to explore what was so great about Jeju island, and the different menus I could find there that were exclusive to the area. Here are a few of the foods I’ve come across during my visit here:
#1: Jeju’s mandarins
When visiting Jeju island, the one thing you cannot miss out on is its citrus fruits. During the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), mandarins were reserved for and sent to the mainland for honored guests like royalty. In this sense, mandarins held marginal popularity until the early 1900s, when, according to The Korea Times, a French Catholic missionary Father Taque imported 15 mandarin trees from Japan. With the island harboring warmer temperatures averaging 14.7 degrees Celsius (58.6 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round, farmers took this to their advantage, and soon enough, the mandarin-growing business spread like wildfire across the island. By 2003, mandarins were responsible for about 47% of the island’s agricultural revenue.
Throughout the years, cross-breeding and experimentation have led to a wide variety of mandarins and tangerines, a type of mandarin. For instance, some notable tangerines include the hallabong, the cheonhyehyang, hwangeumhyang, red hyang, and much, much more. Interestingly enough, they vary in their harvesting season, so it’s not surprising to see citrus fruits out in the market all year round — talk about citrus heaven! When I visited the island in July, I tried the hwangeumhyang, a cross-breed between the hallabong and cheonhyehyang tangerines. With thin, easily peelable skin, a golden exterior, and a juicy, not-too-sweet interior, these tangerines were exquisite.
As evident by its long-standing history, mandarins have been ingrained in the island’s identity and can be considered a representative symbol of Jeju. With how popular the mandarins have become, markets are often bustling with cool products, like dried tangerine chips, freshly-squeezed tangerine juices, and hallabong chocolates, all of which I’ve witnessed on display at the famous Dongmun market. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend trying the citrus fruits on your next visit here — it will definitely be worth it.
#2: Abalone ddukbaegi
When talking about what to eat on this island, it’s almost impossible to leave out seafood- particularly Jeju’s abalone. Jeju has a method distinct from the mainland of hunting seafood, like seaweed, clam, and abalone. This method involves a form of hunting performed by haenyeo, or “sea women.” These haenyeo have been specially trained to dive without extra equipment, hold their breaths for up to two minutes, and venture deep into the sea to scavenge shellfish. Although diving has been common since the Joseon dynasty, the exclusively female divers in charge of shellfish harvesting are unique to Korea. In contrast to the mainland where sons were highly praised, it was desirable in Jeju to birth girls, since females were the main breadwinners in Jeju culture.
With the variety of shellfish these women capture, it’s no wonder that almost every restaurant I visited in Jeju had featured some type of seafood dish. Particularly, one of the notable delicacies I savored was the abalone ddukbaegi, or seafood hot-pot, infused with seafood broth, crabs, clams, and most importantly, abalone. In one restaurant, the abalones were alive when served! I was instructed to bury the abalones into the stew, flesh-side up, and wait a couple of minutes so that the piping hot broth could fully cook the fish. Each bite consisted of slurping up the rich, hot soup, as well as savoring the divine taste and chewy texture of the abalones. It was so delicious that I ate this three times throughout the week. Needless to say, seafood lovers will swoon when presented with this dish.
#3: Audrant Bakery’s garlic bread and carrot cake
While I was searching for some places to visit near my AirBnB near Hamdeok Beach, I came across the well-known Audrant Bakery, well-known for its garlic bread. Of course, being a garlic fanatic myself, I knew I just had to visit. At 7 a.m., with the warm sunlight kissing my bare shoulders, I walked towards the bakery, only to smell the delicious, mouth-watering aroma of butter from a block away. Obviously, that was a clear invitation to go in! As soon as I stepped inside, I spotted the famous garlic bread I’ve dreamt about since searching about it online. Although I wasn’t expecting too much, as soon as I bit into the bread, I experienced a perfect blend of flavors and textures- the sweet and savory garlic-butter spread combined with a slightly crisp, chewy bread. If only I could have packed more of this bread into my suitcase!
In addition to the garlic bread, the carrot cake caught my eye as well, primarily because I had then recently learned that Jeju was responsible for 87% of South Korean carrot production. Due to this, one of my tour guides strongly recommended that we try carrot-incorporated delicacies, like carrot cake, carrot tarts or even carrot waffles. Albeit a bit skeptical about how much better carrot cake would taste here than in the U.S., I was proven completely wrong as soon as the mellow, soft cream cheese icing melted in my mouth. With the cake portion filled to the brim with shredded carrots, raisins, walnuts, and warm spices, paired along with a not-too-heavy, not-too-sweet frosting, I’m not exaggerating when I say this was one of the best carrot cakes I’ve ever tasted. My final conviction: when a tour guide recommends a certain food, get it so you won’t regret it.
#4: Jeju-only Starbucks drinks and hallabong chocolate cake
One of the first things I found out while researching about Jeju was how the Starbucks chains here had some menu items exclusive to the island. I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some Jeju-specific food from Starbucks! After some consideration, I got the mugwort cream frappuccino, the black sesame frappuccino, as well as the hallabong chocolate cake. With the mugwort cream frappuccino, the taste was just how I expected it to be: nutty, flavorful, slightly sweet, and oh-so-refreshing. I was pleasantly surprised when I found small pieces of chewy rice cake blended into the drink as well. The black sesame frappuccino had a similar nutty scent, and exhibited a familiar, rich black sesame flavor. The hallabong chocolate cake (yes, Jeju Starbucks chains have cakes on their menu!) had an unexpected taste. With a texture rivaling that of castella, the hallabong portion added a slightly tangy twist. When paired with a rich dark chocolate flavor, the combination of the tangy and sweet was unexpectedly a very, very good one. It was so remarkable to me and my mom that we bought it the next day to relish again — need I say more?
#5: Haejangguk, or Hangover stew
Although not specific to Jeju, I had the opportunity to try haejangguk, or hangover stew, for the first time on the island. This dish was popularized as a hangover remedy consumed the morning after a night of drinking. With its origins in the Goryeo Dynasty, this recipe has been passed on for generations on end. Supposedly, consuming the hot dish full of high-protein meat, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), and vegetables helps clear up the head and increase blood circulation throughout the body. Despite the hot summer weather, eating this dish was truly a healing, and refreshing experience. With a slightly salty broth, balanced with beansprouts and vegetables, a spoonful was enough for me to let out a deep sigh of relief and contentment. After this experience, I could understand how this helped with hangovers and I knew for sure that I would be on the lookout for this dish even in the U.S.
#6: Green Tea at Osulloc
Last but not least, I tried the green tea-themed items at the Osulloc Tea Museum, dedicated to showcasing the history of green tea cultivation and the tea brewing process. Jeju Island is widely known for its cultivation of green tea, with its volcanic soil and bedrock water. Interestingly, depending on when the green tea is harvested, the teas slightly vary in taste. After buying some young green tea, harvested early on in its development, I found that its smooth, mellow taste was a stark contrast with the green tea I’ve grown accustomed to, which has a stronger, bitter taste. Besides the green tea, the café at Osulloc Tea House also offered green tea roll cake topped with green tea soft serve ice cream. On a sweltering hot day, this seemed like the perfect energy booster and solution for my sweet tooth. Needless to say, the soft serve put store-bought tub green tea ice cream to shame. With countless menu options to indulge in at the café, a plethora of souvenir-worthy items from the museum, and the vast green tea field scenery right next door, what more can you ask for?
Nevertheless, my food adventure in Jeju has made quite an impression on me. With the mix of familiar and novel flavors I’ve encountered on the island, it’s an understatement to say that my tastebuds were merely satisfied — they were flabbergasted. Rich in its own history apart from the mainland and with countless types of foods to enjoy, Jeju is a place I definitely recommend visiting on your next trip to South Korea.