When the breezes begin to lose their winter bite, usually in March here in Korea, we start talking about jukkumi (주꾸미, webfoot octopus). Back in the days when food wasn’t quite so plentiful, this time of year was sometimes called the borit-gogae (보릿고개), or the barley hump. The winter provisions were almost used up, and the barley had been planted but not yet harvested. So for people living by the sea, the arrival of jukkumi was a welcome boon to supplement sparse meals. Up until recently, we didn’t think of jukkumi as anything special, but some time in the last 15 years or so, jukkumi became quite popular. These days, it’s become an iconic spring seafood—there’s even a saying: “Bom jukkumi, gaeul nakji” (봄 주꾸미, 가을 낙지), meaning “Springtime for jukkumi, fall for nakji (small octopus).” In the spring, jukkumi come in from the deep waters to spawn all along the west coast of Korea and begin seeking out clam and conch shells to deposit their eggs. Based on this observation, one old technique for catching jukkumi involves tying up long strings of conch shells and is still used today. Apparently, jukkumi will use whatever they can find to seal up their hidey holes: In 2007, one fisherman pulled up a jukkumi that had used an ancient Goryeo Dynasty celadon dish for its nest.
This year, jukkumi catches are late and low, and prices have jumped. Expect to see more imports from southeast Asia, as well as frozen products.
One note: The official spelling is jukkumi (주꾸미), but just about everyone says jjukkumi (쭈꾸미), with a pronounced, short “j” sound.
My favorite thing about jukkumi this time of year? They’re full of delicious roe! The uncooked egg sac looks like a white egg yolk, but inside it’s full of small white eggs that look like grains of rice. If cut open slightly before cooking, the sac “blooms” into a shape that resembles a chrysanthemum. And the body is also sweet and full of nutrients stored up before spawning. There are different ways to cook jukkumi, depending on if you want to cook just the roe, just the body, or both together, which I’ll describe in detail below.
flavor profile: First, you get that nice sea saltiness that jukkumi naturally contains, then a gentle sweetness comes along as you chew the meat with the fresh sea scent. Texture is a very big part of eating jukkumi in Korea as well. It is very tender and springy when properly cooked. The roe actually tastes looks AND tastes like steamed rice; it has gentle sweetness and grainy kind of nuttiness, as well as a similar texture (maybe a little chewier, depending on how you cook it).
how to choose: The best season for jukkumi in Korea is usually in March and April, right before they spawn. Once they release their eggs, they also lose their flavorful nutrients and aren’t as sweet. If you enjoy octopus roe, choose jukkumi that are plump and full of eggs. If you prefer the meat, then choose jukkumi that are half full of eggs (these octopi haven’t directed as many nutrients up to the egg sac yet). Fresh jukkumi shouldn’t be too slimy and the suckers on their legs should be clearly defined.
how to prepare: Cleaning out the innards is entirely optional—you can enjoy deeper flavors if you leave the head as-is and just cook and eat it after cleaning with water. However, if you want to clean out the guts and also make the octopus roe flower, you’ll need a pair of scissors and a chef’s knife.
Step 1—break down (see recipe link below for detailed photos): First, lift up the fold at the base of the head and snip the connective tissues there. You can flip the head inside out at this stage if you want to keep the head shape, but if you don’t mind cutting it, you can continue to cut the head upwards using scissors. Lay open the head and very gently separate the egg sac (it looks like a white chicken egg yolk), setting it aside. Remove and discard the other innards—it’s always easier if you manage to avoid breaking open the ink sac. Remove the eyes. On the underside where the legs meet the body, there is a small, hard beak. Press down hard on either side with your thumbs and it will pop out.
Step 2—clean: Place the body and head in a mixing bowl. Using flour or rough sea salt, massage them vigorously if you’ve opened the head. If not, massage gently so the egg sac and ink sac don’t break. Rinse with cold water until the water in your bowl is clear. Check for traces of mud on the suckers and repeat until all the legs are completely clean.
how to eat: There aren’t a lot of highly-developed recipes used commonly for jukkumi. The two most common ways of eating jukkumi are blanching (or sometimes shabu shabu) and bokkeum (볶음, sautée). Don’t marinate your jukkumi if you are planning to sauté it, instead add your seasonings while it is cooking—otherwise your jukkumi bokkeum (주꾸미 볶음, sautéed jukkumi) will be very soupy.
Jukkumi sukhoe (주꾸미 숙회, parboiled jukkumi)
how to store: Make sure to clean the guts and ink before storing. After cleaning your jukkumi, they can be stored in the fridge for another day, but freeze them if you are planning to use them any later than that. Thaw in the fridge.