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[Weekender] Savor the season: Indulge in Korean winter delicacies

From half-dried herring dipped in chile sauce and wrapped in seaweed to sweet red bean soup, winter contains an array of seasonal delights

Jan. 6, 2024 - 16:01 By Lee Jaeeun

Gwamegi (Getty Images)

Winter in South Korea means withstanding severe cold. At the same time, it also means stuffing yourself with the delicious Korean winter foods that are in season.

Korea is renowned for its four distinct seasons. And each of those seasons features a different set of foods taking the spotlight.

In winter, three of Korea's most popular kinds of seafood take center stage -- gwamegi, yellowtail and oysters. Other seasonal delicacies include red bean porridge and even citrus fruit.

Many Koreans believe that in-season foods provide comfort for our bodies and minds. Since it is easy to buy ingredients while they are in season, many people like to cook with whatever is in season, while others just find them more conveniently when they eat out.

The local way to eat Gwamegi is to make a veggie wrap with gwamegi, garlic, chives, water parsley, kelp and vinegared red chile paste. (Getty Images)


Gwamegi is Pacific herring or Pacific saury that has been partly dried, giving it a unique flavor, taste and texture. It is produced predominantly in the winter in the village of Guryongpo in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province.

Fresh herring or saury is frozen at minus 10 degrees Celsius and placed outdoors in December to repeat freezing at night and thawing during the day. The process continues until the moisture content drops below 40 percent, which usually takes two weeks. While the water content of the fish drops, the flesh and fat of the fish remain, giving it a chewy, savory taste.

Gwamegi hang at Guryongpo in Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province. (Getty Images)

Since herring oil contains an abundance of two rare omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids -- namely docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid -- that are commonly present at low concentrations in non-marine animals and are beneficial to the human body, gwamegi is thought to be good for health.

Gwamegi is in season from November to January. The local way to eat this dish is to make a veggie wrap with the fish, garlic, chives, water parsley, kelp and a healthy dose of vinegared chile paste. The wrap is a harmony of flavors; the crisp cabbage and green onion tug against the sharp garlic, while the savory gwamegi complements the cool taste of the vinegary chile paste.

A plate of sashimi includes yellowtail to the right. Yellowtail sashimi is often served with other kinds of sashimi, including salmon and flatfish. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)


Yellowtail sashimi, or bangeo hoe in Korean, tastes best in winter. The fish gains fat in the winter, so yellowtail caught in season is said to be even tastier than tuna.

During the winter, sashimi restaurants here put up signs proclaiming “sliced bangeo hoe available.” The yellowtail is usually thickly sliced and dipped in red chile paste with vinegar or soybean sauce, along with wasabi or sesame oil with salt. Others love to eat it with various forms of kimchi. When it is rolled with rinsed mature kimchi, the fatty savory flesh contrasts with the crunch of the kimchi and melts in the mouth. Mature kimchi typically has a stronger punch than regular kimchi, so the seasoning can be shaken off and the kimchi rinsed for a milder taste.

Bada Hoe Sarang in Yeonnam-dong is Seoul's most famous restaurant for serving thick, fresh, delicious yellowtail slices, but the waiting time can extend to a few hours in the winter season.

The local way to eat raw oysters is to dip it in red chile paste with vinegar. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)


Winter is the best season for oysters in Korea. They are in season between November and February -- and the colder it gets, the better they taste. They have plump milky flesh and a refreshing sea scent that spreads in the mouth. They are also full of vitamins and minerals, and are said to be helpful for blood circulation and the skin.

Oysters may be a luxury dish for special occasions in some parts of the world, but in wintertime Korea is awash in oysters. The sea surrounding Korea is an ideal environment to produce high-quality oysters. Korean tidelands are rich in minerals and nutrients, and oysters here require much less time to grow compared to other parts of the world.

Gulgukbap is a rice soup with oysters. It is made by boiling the soup over a long time with oysters, tofu and other vegetables. (Getty Images)

There are tons of ways to eat oysters in Korea, among which having them fresh and raw, in soup with rice or in guljeon -- pan-fried oysters in egg batter -- are some favorites.

Patjuk (Getty Images)


Red bean porridge, known here as patjuk, is made from dried red beans, with added chewy rice cake balls made from glutinous rice flour. Red beans are boiled to remove their bitter taste and are then mashed on a coarse strainer and boiled again.

Koreans traditionally eat patjuk on the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, in belief that the red color wards off evil spirits. Koreans wish their families a happy, successful and safe year by making patjuk for them.

Volunteers dish out complimentary lunches of red bean porridge for impoverished senior citizens at a park in Seoul on Dec. 22, 2023, the day of the winter solstice. People in Korea customarily eat the porridge on the winter solstice on the ancient belief that the red color of the beans provides positive energy to drive away evil spirits. (Yonhap)

The custom of eating patjuk in winter is also related to Korea's long history as an agrarian society. Eating patjuk has been a ritual to wish for an abundant harvest. By eating nourishing food in winter, people prepared to start farming in the spring. Although beliefs about malevolent spirits and agrarian traditions have faded in this modern, industrialized society, patjuk is still popularly enjoyed as a winter dish.

A woman peels tangerines. (123rf)


Korea’s delicious cuisine has gained in popularity globally day by day, and that includes its amazingly sweet fruits. Besides the famous strawberries, grapes, apples and pears, Korean tangerines -- also known as satsumas or mandarins -- are also a widely popular fruit here. Data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs shows Koreans eat more tangerines than any other fruit, with an annual consumption of 14.3 kilograms per person.

This citrus fruit is particularly popular during the winter season. That is partly due to the high vitamin C content, which provides an immunity boost, but the main reason is that they are sweet, juicy and abundant. The period from October to February is the peak season for tangerines. Those that are picked from October to November tend to be bigger and juicier, while fruit picked in December are smaller and have a great tangy scent.

A customer browses citrus fruit at Lotte Mart in Seoul, Dec. 26, 2023. (Newsis)

Korean tangerines that are enjoyed both locally and internationally are mostly produced on Jeju Island. They grow well in the island's rich volcanic soil and temperate climate. The island also has an abundance of sunshine, thanks to its subtropical oceanic climate. All these conditions make it perfect for producing the sweet, juicy, low-acid fruit. Jeju tangerines have made a global reputation for being consistently enjoyable and uniquely delicious, with a high sugar content.

Tangerine farms are a popular spot for tourists who want to pick their own citrus to take back home. There are several tourist-friendly farms located across Jeju Island, and the cost of this wonderful experience is typically just 5,000 won ($3.80). While picking, tourists can also eat as many as they like, and take about as much as they can carry back home.

Tangerine trees are abundant with fruit on Jeju Island. (Getty Images)