Ggot-gae (꽃게) is Korea’s best-loved crab, prized for its sweet flesh and soft shell. Its wide carapace is a mottled green-gray-blue, which is probably why ggot-gae is often translated as “blue crab,” a bit of an English misnomer, especially since the term can refer to any of four species of crab located around the world. They’re a little different—you can bite down on the ggot-gae’s supple shell, for example, but doing the same to the Chesapeake blue crab wouldn’t be doing any favors to your teeth. Ggot-gae is also sometimes called the swimmer crab in English.
꽃, ggot, means flower in Korean, but ggot-gae does’t mean “flower crab”—back in the day, ggot-gae used to be spelled 곶게 (got-gae). 곶 means cape or jetty, and can also refer to a skewer. Take a look at the sharp tips of the ggot-gae’s shell and you’ll see the resemblance.
Ggot-gae (Portunus trituberculatus) is the world’s most heavily-harvested species of crab, mostly in Korea and China. In Korea, it’s found on the west coast. But beware: It’s said that ggot-gae get lean and tasteless around the time of the full moon because they hate the light and scuttle around, losing fat and getting lean. There’s a saying in Korean: “Even a dog wouldn’t want to eat a ggot-gae caught at the full moon.” Seoyoung remembers:
My uncle and mom’s family love ggot-gae so much, so once, before I entered the culinary world, I invited my uncle over, naively bought some ggot-gae (it was a full moon the day before), and cooked them. When we cracked open the shells we discovered they were basically skeletons, with nothing to eat inside. So learn from my mistake!
In the spring, female crabs are coveted for their cache of succulent eggs (they’re more expensive, too) while males tend to be larger and contain more meat in the fall. You can tell female and male crabs apart by flipping them over and observing the shape of their belly flaps—the female belly flaps are rounded and the male flaps are pointed.
To see some live ggot-gae at the market and in the bburi kitchen, you can check out the video we made here. It’s only right that we chose to feature ggot-gae and a beloved spring recipe, ganjang gaejang (soy sauce marinated raw crab) for our first video!
Mention the word “gae,” or “crab,” and most of Koreans will immediately think of ggot-gae. There are many ways to eat ggot-gae, but one of the simplest is to enhance your soups or stocks with this tasty crustacean. Even adding just a leg or two while boiling will create an extra layer of sweet and gamchil (umami) flavors.
how to eat:
1) Steamed: Ggot-gae, simply steamed, is the best way to enjoy the sweetness of the flesh.
2) Ggot-gae tang: You can make a kind of stew using gochujang and doenjang.
3) Ganjang gaejang: Raw crab marinated in ganjang (soy sauce). People usually make this in spring to enjoy the female crab’s eggs. It is one of the most popular banchan in Korea.
how to choose:
1) When choosing female crabs: Turn over and check for a rounded belly cover. Also check the sharp points of the underside—if you can see a tinge of bright orange color there, it means the shell is full of eggs.
2) When choosing male crabs: Males have a sharp and pointy belly cover. Check the weight—more weight means more flesh.
3) To tell the difference between fresh and thawed: Press the belly side of the crab gently with your thumb. The bellies of thawed crabs will sink inward with a splash of water, but a fresh ggot-gae will have a hard belly.
4) Ggot-gae live all along the west coast of South Korea, so there are some flavor differences. Based on our experience buying crabs from Incheon (northwest coast) and Seosan (further south along the coast), the southerly crabs were tastier and had brighter and more vividly colored eggs. They were more pricey of course…! In 2016, spring crabs were about 35,000won/kg and fall crabs were between 15–20,000won/kg.
*Buying live crabs is the best choice, but if you can’t, you can get frozen crabs—just make sure to thaw slowly in the fridge overnight.
how to store: If you leave live crabs as is, they are going to eat their own flesh. So you have to kill them with a knife, or you can simply freeze them. When you defrost frozen crab, it has to be done slowly by leaving them in a refrigerator overnight.