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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

An interview with a Seaweed Farmer

Story and Photos by Jacek Glowacki

Mr. Nam's Seafood Mega Store

Mr. Nams Seaweed megamart

We all eat it. It can be seen and purchased in stores and markets all over Asia and is one of the most commonly used food groups in this part of the world, yet it remains a relatively foreign concept in the west.

Seaweed comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. Flavors between the different kinds of seaweed vary as much as those of various vegetables available on the market today. I always assumed that seaweed was just something people caught in nets and tossed aside as unwanted. After coming to Korea, I realized that seaweed could in fact be planted and harvested just as any other edible plant.

The most common kind of seaweed used in Korea is Kim “김”. This is the dry, often salty and a bit oily seaweed. Another Korean favorite is Miyeok, “미역” used in the making of the traditional Korean birthday soup Miyeok Guk “미역국”.

Being a frequent visitor to the coast, I have the opportunity to see a number of seaweed farms or aquafarms. I visited one such farm in hope of collecting some information about this aquacultural business. Approaching a man and explaining my intent as best I could in my minimal Korean was half work done. I told him I would come back with my Korean friend and explain what it was that I wanted exactly. It took two more visits for me and my interpreter, Lee Jae Kyoung, before we were finally able to sit down with the man himself for a quick interview.

Family business

Mr. Nam Seon Su “남선수” is a 40 year old family man with two kids, and extremely busy which I found out after asking my interpreter what Pappuda “바쁘다” was, a word used very frequently during the interview with Mr. Nam. Even so he was kind enough to shed some light for the knowledge deprived, on the mystery that is seaweed farming.

Although the business has been in his family for 12 years, Mr. Nam started running it after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 when his parents handed the business over to him. He starts his work around seven or eight every morning. We visited him on a Sunday afternoon and work was in full swing and going strong upon our arrival at four in the afternoon.

Supply

Seaweed, as many other plants, grows from seeds. The warm currents of Koreas West coast Yellow Sea allow for faster growth, which is why the seeds are grown in a factory in the Jolla province, from where Mr. Nam purchases them. The seeds are invisible to the human eye and usable for farming by independent businesses only after they have reached a length of 2cm.

Aquaculture workers prepare the seaweed harvest

Aquaculture workers prepare the seaweed harvest

Mr. Nam uses two kinds of seaweed seeds in his farming. Ones for Miyeok “미역” and ones for Dasima “다시마”. Although the visible differences in these two seem to be mainly in their thickness their uses in consumption differ as well. Dasima is a thick, shiny green seaweed, often served as a side dish or a wrap, Sam “쌈”,as are lettuce leaves Sangchu “상추”, and is never used in the making of broths, unlike Miyeok.

The Seaweed takes approximately 4 months to grow. These two particular kinds of seaweed have two different seasons for growth. Miyeok “미역” is planted in October and is ready for harvesting in February. Dasima’s “다시마” period of growth is from December until April.

Planting

The 2cm long seaweed is placed inside a thumb thick rope. The seeds are spaced 30cm apart and the rope is dropped into the ocean spanning a length of 4-5 meters. The seeds have to be planted far from the shore in order to avoid tides. The seaweed farming fields can be seen floating along the coasts of the peninsula. All you need to do is venture out of the city a bit and stop by a small village on the way.

Harvest

Harvesting begins in April and continues on until late in July. After July preparations for the next season are made leaving not much time for holidays. Seaweed takes an approximate 5 days to dry in the open air. A trip along the coast between the months of May and July allows for a glimpse of scattered patches of land on which seaweed is laid out. The weed has to be flipped continuously if dried in that manner. Luckily for the new age farming the invention of drying machines has made the work easier and quicker. Machines allow for a quick 16 hours drying, and even with that the weed has to be pre-dried for half a day before being placed in the dryers.

Despite the busy nature of aquaculture, there's still time to give a youngster a ride and a laugh

Despite the busy nature of aquaculture, there is still time to make give a youngster a ride and make some laughs

I promised Mr. Nam that the interview would take no longer than 20 minutes, which unfortunately for him had expanded into an hour talk. Many things get lost in the translation but at least I hope that the insight on the working side of this farming business has been as fun to read about as it has been for me to write about.

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