Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

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.
HIDE CAPTION
Busan detour
One-woman seafood shops
Humble setting
Real-life mermaids
More fish
Rook lighthouse
Yes, that's a baby bottle
Thick green porridge
Next course, live octopus
Busan's best raw eats
Wonderful views
Catch of the day
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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.

Older women rule S. Korean fish market
Love for baseball unites S. Korean city
South Korea's big surfing wave

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.

Jeju Island: Asia's new best weekend getaway?

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.

Beyond Seoul: 19 reasons to explore Korea

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:53 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Master sushi chef shares secrets, from shopping at a Japanese fish market to making sushi.
updated 10:03 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Kobe beef has the bigger name, but Wagyu beef can be as flavorful and important in a Japanese restaurant.
updated 2:25 AM EDT, Wed October 8, 2014
The "Ramen Guy" untangles the complex flavors of Japan's diverse dish.
updated 3:08 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
For travelers looking to savor the flavors of real Balinese cuisine, these are the meals to kick things off with.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Had enough of Kuta? Life ambles along at a more sedate pace at these under-the-radar destinations.
updated 2:32 AM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
In a world where the niche-hip is elevated to cultural elite on a weekly basis, it was probably inevitable: the humble taco truck has gone Hollywood.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
At these favorite LA bars, the drinks come with a chaser of kitsch.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Don't order Corona and don't freak out when you see Jessica Alba without makeup, and you might pass for local.
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
A sunset in Marrakech
Once a haven for painters seduced by its rich colors, Marrakech is back on track to become a world-leading destination for photographers.
updated 2:27 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Marrakech goats head stew
Snake charmers and storytellers, fact and fantasy are blurred together on Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech's ancient central square.
updated 3:11 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
A Marrakech lamp bazaar
For those willing to delve deep in the Red City, Marrakech rewards with stunning scenery, unforgettable flavors and luxurious indulgences.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT