One of the most unique dining experiences I’ve ever had was at a seafood restaurant in Gangnam named Goraebul(고래불), meaning “whale fire”. It’s known for its fresh seafood and is on a number of “Top Ten Restaurants” lists for Seoul. The menu varies depending on the daily catch and, in case you forget, there’s a tank full of live specimens right by the front door.
Nothing on the menu was in English (or any other language we know) and, not knowing how to choose, we decided to be adventurous and went with one of the large recommended sets. To be honest, I’m still not sure what everything was. If someone who knows Korean can translate this for me, it’d be much appreciated. I’m also wondering what used to be on the menu that’s now covered up.
The first dishes that came to us were octopus slices and a mushroom, seaweed, and greens salad, followed by some sauces and a simple green porridge.
The next tray held some delightfully exotic and mysterious raw seafoods, some of which we have been able to identify. The waitress did a sample preparation of some of the items on the icy tray for us, which included some sort of kelp, sea cucumber, sea urchin, and wasabi. The sea urchin was much better than any I’ve had in the United States, though I’m not sure how much of it was due to the freshness or the species. The sea cucumber however, was incredibly bland and tough. It’s like chewing on a cold, slightly fishy rubber sheet. I’d previously only had it in chunks in Chinese soups and dishes at wedding banquets, all made from rehydrated dried ones, stewed until tender. Prior to rehydration, they are hard as a brick and an ashy grey, sometimes filled with sand, and are a pain to prepare. To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s even considered a delicacy, given the cost and prep time vs. tastiness. Now that I’ve had it fresh, I can’t help but wonder how it has maintained such a status for so long.
On the other side of the tray was this bizarre creature. What is it? Is it coral? Did Cthulhu lay some eggs? Who can say? It looks like a rock from the outside but the firm shell is somewhat pliable and soft enough to have been sliced open. Inside, it was tender but didn’t have a very strong taste. Not bad, but beyond being clearly seafood, not particularly memorable either.
We were equally baffled by this other squishy orange one. What is it? It presumably was attached to the tough sheet under it just the day before, but that betrays little about what it looked like when alive.
These barnacles, I didn’t even think were edible; I thought it was just a decorative piece. The waitress came back after we thought we were done with the tray, cracked it open for us, and showed us the error of our ways. It was a bit like eating crab.
Then came some fish soup. Moray, according to her phone’s translation app. Moray… eel? I’ll have to try it again in another form sometime.
While the iced tray was strange and arguably more exotic, this trio of giant shrimp, abalone, and whale are more canonical luxury foods by Chinese standards.
The giant shrimp, she dissected for us with a pair of scissors. While impressively large, I didn’t find it tastier than the usual, average-sized shrimp I can find in a grocery store.
The abalone though, was delicious. Tender, juicy, and flavorful. Now I understand why it’s considered such a delicacy. This, when done well, certainly deserves its reputation.
This here is whale. It’s unclear where these two slices came from, what species it is, or why they look so different. The one on the left side looks a bit shredded and somewhat less appetizing than the photo on the menu. We both consumed half of each slice but it’s such a miniscule amount that it did little for our tastebuds. It did increment the species count and make us feel a bit guilty about the meal in a way that the mystery meats didn’t, for better or worse.
And just when we thought we were about done, out came some more small dishes of vegetables, rice, and soup.
Dessert was a small brick of watermelon on another wonderfully stony-looking dish and a sweet fruity tea. I quite liked the tea and it was a pleasant way to close out this epic meal.