Gaebul: The fat innkeeper worm (AKA the penis fish)

There’s no way around this one so we’re not going to mince words here. There’s a creature called the “penis fish” and it’s delicious. Called “gaebul” (개불) in Korean and Urechis unicinctus in textbooks, it’s actually not a fish but a kind of marine spoon worm native to Korea, Japan, China and Russia. It’s also called the “fat innkeeper worm” because it creates U-shaped tunnels in the mud where other species like small crabs and tiny fish take up residence, feeding on the gaebul’s leftovers. And about those eating habits: The gaebul creates a slimy mucus “net” inside its tunnel and sucks water in, trapping plankton and other particles until the net is full, then gobbles up the entire net, plankton and all.

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Gaebul in Korea is primarily caught on the west and southwest coast where mudflats are plentiful—compared to the East Sea (with an average depth of 1,700 meters), the West Sea is on average just 44m deep and has huge tidal flats rich with seafood. We went out to Anmyeondo in South Chungcheong Province to get a taste of this seafood, and found a dozen or so people digging up gaebul on a drizzly morning.

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It’s not easy work: You have to look for the gaebul’s telltale holes on the mud’s surface then shovel like crazy (and hope you don’t disembowel the worm in the process). Neither of us were very successful, but we did watch in awe as one woman trudged from hole to hole, shoveled for a few seconds and pulled up gaebul after gaebul. It was like she could see through the mud.

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Considering that the name “gaebul” comes from the word “gae,” meaning dog, and “bul,” meaning male gonads, we heard surprisingly few jokes about the penis fish on our trip (though it is sometimes referenced in popular literature). Maybe when it’s something so everyday and normal, you just don’t feel the need. We did, however, find a set of Line emoticons featuring a cheery little gaebul character. Because, you know, you just might need a spoon worm relaxing in a hot bath to express yourself someday.

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Chef’s Notes

The variety of foods that humans choose to eat is pretty amazing. This may be one of those ingredients that makes you stop and think, “What am I eating?” But still, the flavor and texture of gaebul is so unique, I highly encourage you to try it!

flavor profile: When the fisherman cut, gutted and handed the gaebul to us right there on the mudflat, each chewy bite was amazingly sweet thanks to the saltwater it had been rinsed in. The best word in Korean to describe this sweetness is “dalchakjigeunhada” (달착지근하다), meaning a kind of natural, mildly pleasant sweetness that you’ll often taste in seafood. The typical flavor of the gaebul you’ll get from restaurants may be a little less sweet, however, since it’s rinsed in tap water there. The incredible chewiness may be another plus point for some.

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how to choose: Gaebul are available year-round, but they are sweetest and most plentiful from December to March. Bigger and plumper gaebul are ideal. Irregular thickness indicates lower quality, according to the fishermen. And if it’s stretched out and thin, this is a sign that it could even be dead. Handling the gaebul too much can kill it, so take extra care! Also, keep in mind that gaebul come in a variety of colors, from pink to orange-tinged, light brown, or even gray, so pink doesn’t necessarily indicate freshness.

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how to prepare: Chop off both ends and squeeze out the innards. Rinse thoroughly with running cold water.

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how to eat: Here in Korea, we usually eat gaebul raw. Slice it diagonally and dip into your favorite sauce—Koreans usually choose chogochujang (초고추장, vinegared gochujang). We also found out that locals near the West Sea sauté gaebul with kimchi. But I think this overpowers its sweet flavor, so eat it raw if you want to taste the real flavor of gaebul. People also skewer gaebul whole and grill it with a salt, pepper and sesame oil seasoning.

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how to store: Gaebul are eaten fresh right away. You can certainly freeze them, but when we asked the local people about this, every single one of them replied, “Why would you ever have leftovers for freezing? We can’t ever get enough of fresh gaebul!”

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