Savor Busan: The Most Beautiful Haenyeo in Busan
Nestled between Haeundae Beach and Songjeong Beach, the little briny cove of Cheongsapo famous for its narrow road of humble restaurants serving some of the city’s finest mixed grill of shellfish (jogae-gui, 조개구이) is where I met the most beautiful haenyeo (sea woman) in Busan.
A local couple, Scott via Ontario and Terri from Busan, introduced my father and me to the House at the End restaruant with a sign that just reads 끝집 방갈로, for arguably the best lunch of jogae-gui in our neck of the coast back in the summer of 2012. It is one of the oldest places in Cheongsapo, one of the quietest, and the closest to the gentle waves lapping on the shore. The large platter of purple shelled meaty clams (daehap,대합), succulent scallops (garibi,가리비), and giant mussels (geodaehan honghap, 거대한홍합) grilled in their shells before the meat and innards is finished off in an aluminum foil pan with butter, a Korean version of mirepoix, and enoki for ₩45,000 was breathtaking enough. Until I met her.
After the side dishes of chilled shrimp, carrots, peppers, onions, kimchi, seaweed soup, peanuts, and various dipping sauces were served, and the charcoal was dropped in the well in the middle of the table, and the Cass bottles were popped, and the soju shots were poured, a different ajumma approached our banquet. She was a bit stocky but healthy, and her eyes displayed a vitality beneath a permanent squint framed by itinerant crow’s-feet. She was a sexagenarian sporting a Jheri curl, though it was not slick from some Soul Glo but dampened by the sea. I thought she would come over and push us some kind of touristy trinket like a peddler on the beaches of Mazatlan or Koh Samui. I had already decided I would say “no-thank-you” and get back to our “geonbaes” with raised glasses until I realized what she was offering: a thick, 12-inch diameter plastic plate covered to the edge with fresh, immaculately cleaned seong gae (성개) she had just harvested earlier that morning. Fresh, raw sea urchin.
Where I’m from sea urchin, the rich, livery, golden-orange, salty pudding isn’t called the “foie gras of the sea” for nothing. A sample of it over sticky rice the size of a stick of gum would cost anywhere from $4-$6 and here is a dish of it the size of a medium pizza. She sprung from the water and I was sprung for her.
Beholding the beauty in her hand, I gasped. We locked eyes. Both were interested but couldn’t reveal too much. There was business involved after all.
“Olma yeyo?” I asked.
“Man cheon,” she answered.
I nodded and quickly retrieved a ₩10,000 note from my wallet. She circled around the table, cleared off a spot, and set it down to my left next to the C1 bottle. I handed her the ten spot and she walked away. Both of us satisfied.
Back home, a generous portion of such a refined delicacy like that would have been at least $40, flown in, and packed in ice in the back of a seafood truck. Here in Busan in the summer in Cheongsapo, if you’re lucky, mermaids offer their world to you at duty free, retail outlet prices from a homegrown harvest.
I’ve been there a handful of times since, looking for her, waiting, but to no avail. My local sources explained that seong gae is summer so don’t give up yet. She may be back and now is the season for her return. If not, the jogae-gui at the humble house with its red and yellow tents at the end of the road will more than tastily tide you over until then. Salud!
Getting There: Take subway line 2 heading north to Jangsan to its terminus. Walk up and around Dalmaji Hill’s Moontan Road or take a short cab ride from Jangsan Station to Cheongsapo. Hang a right down to the rocky jetties and the two smallest lighthouses and one final right to the end of the jogae-gui lane to the House at the End restaurant, 끝집 방갈로, with its red and yellow tents on the first floor.
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