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Mermaids, abalone and a very local breakfast in Busan

By Frances Cha, CNN
updated 10:26 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
A small fishing village in Busan, Yeonhwari offers a somewhat unusual breakfast experience. At small shops, customers pick the seafood they want, then the owner carves it up on the spot and serves it in an eating area behind the shop. A small fishing village in Busan, Yeonhwari offers a somewhat unusual breakfast experience. At small shops, customers pick the seafood they want, then the owner carves it up on the spot and serves it in an eating area behind the shop.
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  • In the fishing village of Yeonhwari, "mermaids" dive for abalone and conch
  • Abalone porridge and live octopus make an unusual but delicious seaside breakfast
  • Breakfast is a quiet affair, but the village gets crowded at lunch
  • Quirky lighthouses are an area trademark

(CNN) -- I'm sitting in a tiny, open-air seafood restaurant in Yeonhwari fishing village in Busan, South Korea, waiting for my breakfast.

In the distance, on the rocky shore, a local haenyeo ("sea woman") is picking through her morning's catch.

"She's late," says a fellow patron when she notices me staring. "All the other haenyeo have already finished their diving and delivered their catch."

Like their more famous Jeju Island counterparts, Busan's haenyeo are "mermaids" who support their families by diving for seafood without the use of any particular tools or artificial breathing aids.

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The subject of many documentaries, they're a dying breed -- an estimated 20,000 haenyeo still work in South Korea -- due to the intense physical difficulties of the job.

While most haenyeo usually dive about five meters and stay underwater for 30-second intervals, many are capable of diving as deep as 20 meters and staying underwater for as long as two minutes.

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Seaside dining

Yeonhwari itself is a tranquil contrast from the crowds and bustle in other parts of Busan.

The little string of shops selling hoe (Korean sashimi) in "Lotus Alley" provide a classic example of the matriarchal family businesses headed by Busan's haenyeo.

Women dive in the morning, then pass their catch to other female members of the family, who run one-person operations selling the day's seafood in shacks by the shore.

While the shacks may seem crude from the outside, dining areas in the back are clean and have beautiful views of the sea.

Seagulls fly about and quirky lighthouses in the background -- a trademark of the region -- provide excellent photo ops.

Jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge) goes best with kimchi and barley tea.
Jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge) goes best with kimchi and barley tea.

Thick green porridge

A specialty of the area is abalone porridge, known as jeonbokjuk.

"Jeonbokjuk is the best breakfast food because it's so smooth and easy on the stomach," says Choi Joeong-hye, 56, owner of one of the small seaside restaurants.

She ladles thick spoonfuls of the freshly made, steaming porridge, making sure to show me the beautiful mother of pearl she removed from the abalone I picked from a tank 15 minutes ago.

Her sister-in-law dove for abalone that morning, she tells me, and has been doing so for the past 12 years.

While the setting is humble and the table plain, the price isn't cheap.

A bowl of porridge costs ₩10,000 ($9). Sides of raw conch and live octopus (also ₩10,000 each) come squirming on my plate.

The porridge is thicker and greener and more delicious than any I've had in Seoul.

The live octopus is incredibly fresh. The sesame oil-dipped tentacles tingle in my mouth as they writhe for the last time.

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While breakfast is a quiet affair, it gets crowded at lunch, says Choi.

That's when businessmen from nearby towns flock to the village for lunch, along with the local ajumma (older Korean women) who gather here to dish the latest gossip.

Do foreign visitors ever come? I ask.

"We get occasional international tourists who come just to see the village, but they can't really stomach the seafood," says Choi. "The porridge, maybe."

Jeong-hye Jip, 133 Yeonhwari Village, Kijanggun, Busan, South Korea

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