Haenyo divers on Jeju Island
© Ed Jones/Getty images

Mermaids and mollusks

A gourmet delight? Or the victory of curiosity over disgust? Adrian Pickshaus traveled to South Korea to sample abalone, a rare mollusk.

There are some delicacies that we eat mainly to show off. Like abalone, where the myth is greater than the flavor. I was invited to sample this species of sea snail on the South Korean island of Jeju, where it is served raw as sashimi or boiled with rice. The latter is salty and somewhat slimy, the former chewy and rubbery.

Jeju is around 80 kilometers off the south coast of Korea, an emerald flash in the blue ocean. Old women – the Haenyo – traditionally dive in front of the island’s rocky cliffs. Thanks to a special breathing technique, they can stay underwater for up to four minutes, plenty of time to harvest sargassum, octopus, and – of course – abalone. The Haenyo tradition goes back to the beginning of the 20th century.

It all started with taxation: Male divers had to pay taxes, women didn’t. So the men took care of the household while the women went diving. In the mid-1990s, some 30 000 Haenyo worked in this dangerous job, sending their children to college and paving the way for the death of their profession. There are only a couple of hundred real Haenyo left on Jeju. Some run a small restaurant on Seongsan beach. I smiled as I looked into their salt-wrinkled faces, swigging a beer and chewing on raw abalone. Hoping to stop the tide turning for the brave women of the sea.

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Getting there from Germany

In August, Lufthansa flies daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and six times weekly from Munich (MUC) to Seoul (ICN). To calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com