Maesaengi (매생이) is an unusual kind of seaweed, one that was eaten mostly along the southern coast of Korea until a recent surge in popularity in the last ten years.
Its small renaissance on the Korean cooking scene can be at least partly attributed to a few celebrity chefs featuring the wispy, tendril-like seaweed on their menus. Not only is its silky and velvety texture unique, the color is a green so vivid it almost seems unreal. Its scientific name is Capsosiphon fulvescens, hinting at its tiny tubular hairs and bright green color. At the farm we visited in Jangheung, you can see maesaengi floating just under the surface like mermaid hair. Maesaengi farming begins when the temperatures hit a sweet spot between 5–10°C, ideally 8°C, usually in early December. Farmers put out bamboo mats in the shallow waters near the shore, where the maesaengi gametes and spores float in from the ocean and attach themselves to the bamboo.
How do you know that you’ll get maesaengi and not some other kind of seaweed? we ask. It depends on the temperature of the water, or in other words, the depth of your bamboo, says the sajangnim (or owner). Though different kinds of seaweed favor different environments (parae on rocks and gamtae in wetlands), gim grows in a similar environment but at a different temperature. After about 15 days of growing the young maesaengi, workers move the bamboo mats into deeper waters further out in the bay and repeat the process until there are no more maesaengi spores. The most important thing to remember, the sajangnim emphasizes, is how delicate maesaengi is. You have to watch the water temperature like a hawk, you can’t use any kinds of fertilizers or chemicals and the water has to be extremely pure (another reason why Jangheung, which won an award for its eco-friendly farming initiatives in 2006, is a good place for maesaengi). And most importantly, every strand of maesaengi has to be gathered by hand.
One of the sajangnim’s employees (or maybe a cousin or maybe both, it seems to be a family business) leans over the side, lifts up a bamboo rod and pulls off handfuls of maesaengi with quick, deft movements. “Your turn,” he tells us, and it’s surprisingly hard—the water is achingly cold and the maesaengi deviously slippery. Everyone has a good laugh at our struggles and we have newfound respect for the weathered hands of the maesaengi harvesters.
This time of year, in late January, is maesaengi harvesting season—early in the season, you can gather maesaengi by hand in the water, and some will grow back. Later, the bamboo mats are gathered up by the dozen and lifted onto shore by cranes where they sit dripping sea water like strange furry sea creatures. The maesaengi is removed, washed, and carted into the warehouse, where women wearing colorful rubber boots squat around buckets of the seaweed, now a dark evergreen color when packed densely together. They wrap the maesaengi into 400g bundles and pack them into styrofoam containers, which will be shipped off to markets around the country.
Everyone’s first impression of maesaengi is all the same: “What the #$%^ is this.” But if you just 질끈 (jil-ggeun, tightly) close your eyes and taste this mysterious ingredient, then you will be very surprised with the silky and velvety texture that it presents to you. It feels like that you are drinking thousands of silk threads of cotton candy in one “hororok” sip, disappearing as if it never existed at all. In Seoul, usually people eat this by making soup with lots of water and less maesaengi with a less thick consistency. Of course we use a spoon for eating this soup. BUT! here in Jangheung it was different. They used CHOPSTICKS! All the local neighbors were giggling that we were looking for spoons. They called us “Seoul chon nom,” or “city slickers” and said “you guys never know how to enjoy this soup!” When the sajangnim’s wife showed us how to cook this soup, she put maybe a quarter of the water that what we city slickers put in.
There are three major seaweed families in Korea—maesaengi has the finest texture and the brightest green color. Imagine the feeling of moss, a moss in the sea, how soft it can be. As for flavors, maesaengi has the gentlest, mildest sea flavor. So maesaengi soup can always be prepared with oysters because it can help to create more gamchilmat (umami flavor).
Maesaengi is also very sensitive to heat. You have to be careful not to overcook maesaengi when you work with heat. Maesaengi consists of 60% air inside, so it melts away if you over boil. Also super be careful not to burn your tongue and mouth ceiling when you have maesaengi soup. It doesn’t look hot at all when you take off from heat, because the bundle of maesaengi is hiding all the steam that it covers like blanket covers. If you jump in to swallow the soup, then you will have a hard time speaking for a while. There’s a saying in Korean: “You serve maesaengi soup when you hate your son-in-law.” Try to remember this and then you will enjoy maesaengi. Maesaengi is also very sensitive to acidity. So while parae goes well with vinegar or other acidic condiments, beware for maesaengi! If you have leftover maesaengi, just wrap it very tightly without any air and freeze it. It will last a year.