Restaurant owner Jinyoung Cha shares her recommendations for eating seasonally in Jeju. From speciality dishes to her favourite restaurants – via fusion food and fish festivals – here’s what you need to know.
Geographically separated from the Korean mainland by a wide stretch of sea, Jeju Island has its own distinct culinary character. You’ll find unique species like the Jeju black pig and hallabong fruit here, plus a food culture which relies heavily on seafood, local recipes and seasonal produce. If you want to eat like a local, when you go is almost as important as where you go.
In recent years, Jeju’s dining scene has expanded, as modern restaurateurs have fused contemporary and foreign cuisines with traditional recipes and ingredients. Jinyoung Cha is one of the people at the forefront of this culinary innovation. Together with her husband, chef Seokhwan Yang, she opened b.pork bistro in May 2015 – one of the first ‘cool’ restaurants to hit sleepy Seogwipo.
“Usually, most restaurants for black pork are just barbecue.” Cha explains. But in a sharp departure from tradition, b.pork (like e e cummings, always written in lower case) merges Jeju speciality black pork together with non-traditional ingredients like pasta and tacos to create lunch boxes that are unique to the island.
But tradition is never far away in Jeju, a place where beaches and parks are dotted with dol hareubang – stone figures so old that their meaning has become shrouded in mystery. Many restaurants still sell seafood harvested by haenyeo, Jeju’s famous female free divers, and plenty of dishes here haven’t been altered in centuries.
To get a flavour of modern Jeju, you’ll still need to know how to eat seasonally. Here’s how.
Visit b.pork bistro for no-fuss fusion food
While Jinyoung Cha lent her expertise to the compiling of this list, b.pork is included here entirely on its own merits. Effortlessly stylish, it puts a creative spin on the Jeju staple of black pork. It’s also very well located for attractions in Seogwipo, and only a two-minute walk from Lee Jung Seop Art Street. Its tiny size means that there’s a focus on takeout, which is perfect for visitors – buy a lunchbox and eat it on the go in one of Seogwipo’s pretty parks. When to eat it: all year round.
Everyone’s heard of black pork, but Cha notes that regular Jeju pork is also unique. The difference is in the breed of pig – black pigs are the island’s indigenous species, recognisable by their black skin and hair, while white pork comes from pink pigs, found all over Korea. “Jeju’s pork is very different [from other places, such as Seoul] – Jeju’s pork is very delicious. Black pork is very good, I know, but white pork is very good [too].” She recommends trying Jeju white pork at Gudumi, a Korean barbecue restaurant set just far enough outside Seogwipo town to be off the radar of most tourists. Here, you’ll get generous portions of good-quality meat, lots of fresh side dishes and a photo-worthy, industrial-chic interior. Like most barbecue restaurants, you also get the fun of cooking your meat over a grill on your table. When to go: all year round.
One kind of sushi is very popular in the winter: yellowtail fish, or bangeo. In winter, the yellowtail migrate to the south of the island, and taste best at this time as it’s just before their breeding season. “In [winter], yellowtail taste very, very good,” says Cha. “They’re bigger than in other seasons, so most people eat yellowtail sushi in the winter.” She recommends trying it at Naknang, an unassuming local restaurant in Seogwipo. Yellowtail fish are so popular that every November, a four-day festival is held to celebrate them. The annual Moseulpo Bangeo Festival has a packed programme of events and activities, including fireworks, free food samples and a riotous competition where entrants vie to catch the fish with bare hands. When to go: winter.
Jeju’s food is very seasonal; even things like sea urchins have a specific time where they can be picked, and the year revolves around an abundant autumn harvest. So what’s best to eat in the winter? “Usually raw fish,” Cha says. “Jeju people think that sushi is very good in winter because of the cold weather.” Since temperatures are lower, sushi and sashimi stay fresh for longer and taste better. You can find raw fish all over Jeju – which will generally all be good-quality – but if you’re in the area, it’s worth popping into Sushi Aewol for a bite. Tucked just off the main road, this tiny restaurant has izakaya-style seating set around a central workstation so you can watch your sushi being prepared to order. Make a reservation in advance – it’s popular! When to go: winter.
Visit 산방 식당 (Sanbang Restaurant) for Jeju's best milmyeon
Restaurant, Korean, $$$
In summer, Jeju locals eat milmyeon, a cold wheat noodle dish originally from Busan. Jeju’s version is heartier, however – while mainland recipes use a kimchi-based broth, Jeju milmyeon uses an icy-cold meat soup. It’s topped with egg, boiled meat, chopped cucumber and spicy gochujang, a fermented red pepper paste. Cha recommends trying the milmyeon at Sanbang Restaurant. What’s special about it? “It’s delicious,” she laughs. “Yeah. No other reason.” And she has a point – Sanbang is so popular that the restaurant also opened a second branch in Jeju City. When to go: summer.
Slurp seaweed soup at Osung Traditional Restaurant
Restaurant, Korean, $$$
One Jeju delicacy that you can’t miss is seaweed soup. Seaweed is an important part of the Korean diet – it’s delicious, abundant and ultra-nutritious. During the Korean War, many Jeju residents subsisted mostly on a diet of seaweed soup (miyeok-guk) and rice. Miyeok-guk is enjoyed throughout Korea, but there are regional differences. “In [mainland] Korea, usually they cook seaweed with beef. But in Jeju, they usually cook seafood with seaweed,” Cha says. Traditionally, Koreans eat miyeok-guk on their birthday as a sign of respect to their mother – after childbirth, women are given seaweed soup to eat as it contains many necessary nutrients such as iron and iodine. Don’t eat it if you have an exam coming up, however: Koreans believe that the seaweed’s slippery qualities will cause facts to slide out of your brain! Try miyeok-guk for yourself at Osung Traditional Restaurant, close to Cheonjiyeon Falls in Seogwipo. When to go: on your birthday, or all year round.
Explore Jeju’s alternative side at And 유 (Yu) Cafe
Exterior of And유Cafe | Courtesy of And유Cafe
As you might have noticed, Jeju’s cuisine is heavy on meat, fish and seafood. Veganism was barely on the radar until the very late twenty-teens – but now it’s a trend that looks set to stay. One of the best vegan establishments here is And 유 (Yu) Cafe, set on the outskirts of Hallim. It serves home-made food and drinks, plus wholesome desserts like chewy raw vegan brownies. When to go: all year round – desserts will vary with the season.
If you’re not vegetarian, however, it’s virtually a crime to visit Jeju without tasting black pork. Cha says that black pork barbecues are most popular in summer “because many, many people came here in summer from other places… and they like barbecue black pork.” You’ll find black pork restaurants all over the island – including Black Pork Street, an entire road dedicated to the dish in downtown Jeju City. Generally, any busy restaurant will serve good-quality pork; but if you’re looking for something tried-and-tested, Donsadon is one of the most famous. It’s a favourite restaurant of several artists signed to YG Entertainment (including Big Bang’s G-Dragon), so if you’re very lucky, you might even spot a celebrity or two. It’s on the western edge of Nohyeong-dong nightlife district. When to go: summer.
Mint is another restaurant with playful sensibilities. It serves creative cuisine with a Western fusion concept – think classic salads dressed with a twist of hallabong, black pork pizza, or abalone pasta. The menu veers towards fine dining, with prices which reflect that – but it’s worth every penny for the views alone. Mint is located at the tip of Seopjikoji, in a contemporary building designed by architect Tadao Ando. Its floor-to-ceiling windows jut out straight over craggy cliffs and white-tipped, crashing ocean waves, while on the other side you have views of the Yumin Art Nouveau Collection building (also designed by Tadao Ando and a work of art in its own right), plus Seopjikoji Lighthouse. In spring and summer, Seopjikoji is covered with a sea of yellow canola flowers. When to go: all year round, but views are best in spring or summer.
Eat seafood harvested by Jeju’s mermaids at Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu
Finally, Jinyoung Cha recommends a haenyeo restaurant to get a sense of Jeju’s traditional culture and past. “Haenyeo have a very long history,” she said. “In Jeju, most men didn’t work, but most of the women had to work for their family.” Living on an island surrounded by marine abundance, the haenyeo made their living as free divers, harvesting seafood as deep as 30m (98ft) below the waves. Today, this way of life is dying out. In 1965, 23,000 women worked as haenyeo. By 2019, only 4,000 haenyeo remained, most of whom were over the age of 60. “Haenyeos’ usual age is 70-to-80-year-old women,” Cha says. Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu is unusual as it’s run by a mother-daughter team – perhaps a sign that things are looking up for the haenyeo, whose occupation was recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. When to go: March to June for sea urchin season.