Three Treasures From the Sea
Sambo Restaurant was already a popular neighbourhood joint in downtown Seogwipo, Jeju. It is conveniently located on Arang Joeul Food Street, a tourist destination designated by the district. The small restaurant gained national recognition after it was aired on TVN’s popular food show Wednesday Night Food Talk. The show praised the restaurant for offering three treasures (sambo) from the sea of Jeju: seafood hotpot, grilled sea bream, and pearl-spot chromis sashimi in icy broth.
This was my second time visiting the authentic Jeju eatery. During my bike trip in summer 2017, I stopped over for largehead hairtail soup, another local classic, for breakfast. The soothing broth and soft fish meat was so memorable. It was one of the best meals I had on my nine-day cycling trip around the island. This time, my expectation was even higher: I would try their signature seafood hot pot and see what the hype is all about.
A single serving of sizzling hot pot contains three baby abalones, mussels, clams, and a prawn called ddak-saewoo. Sambo’s signature hot pot wasn’t always called seafood hot pot. The restaurant was once famous for obunjagi hot pot. Obunjagi, or blue abalone, looks similar to abalone but smaller. Words spread that obunjagi soup taste significantly better than abalone’s. More and more people asked for obunjagi hot pot. With the increased demand, haenyeos relentlessly collected obunjagi from the ocean floor. These days, there are hardly any obunjagi left in sight and many restaurants stopped selling obunjagi dishes.
The Legendary Obunjagi Hot Pot is Now History
Sambo, like many others, swapped their signature obunjagi hot pot with seafood hot pot. The small abalones in the hot pot are sometimes mistaken as obunjagi. Sambo makes it clear that they are not obunjagi. The rare shellfish are now scarce in the sea of Jeju. Unlike abalones, obunjagi cannot be farmed. The near-extinction may have been predicted and could have been avoided.
I have never tasted obunjagi before so I cannot make any comparison. However, the books I read point out that obunjagi broth incomparably better. They say the hot pots without obunjagi are not worthy. They are overpriced. Their flavour do not meet up to expectation.
Aside from all the criticism, I enjoyed the broth of seafood hot pot. It is the flavour of the sea with a little kick, as the soup is savoury and slightly spicy. The prawn was a little hard to eat, and it did not have much flesh under rock-hard shell. The little abalones do not have much flavour but have interesting texture.
I hope the day will come when obunjagi will be available in Jeju again. When that day comes, hopefully there will be better plannings and restrictions to collect the shellfish without driving them to extinction.
Sambo Restaurant 삼보식당
319-8 Cheonji-dong, Seogwipo, Jeju-do