You may have seen this grenade-shaped creature, a fiery-red sunset color, floating around in tanks at seafood restaurants and fish markets starting in spring. You may even be a fan, slurping them down raw as soon as they’re sliced up. And if you’re not a fan, please let us try to convert you. Say hello to the meonggae (멍게, pronounced “mung-gae”), commonly called the sea pineapple in reference to its oblong shape and knobby protuberances. A type of tunicate, or sea squirt, it has soft flesh surrounded by a tough, leathery coat (like a tunic, hence the name) rooted to the sea floor. In their larval state, young meonggae have tiny vertebrae and tails and swim around looking for a surface on which to settle. Farmed meonggae larvae attach to long ropes in tanks before being lowered into open waters. Once they attach, they quickly lose their vertebrae and tails, develop tough skins, and then take about three years to fully mature.
Meonggae used to be more of a regional food, but once meonggae aquaculture began in earnest in the 1970s, people around the country began eating more of it. The most common type of meonggae is the knobby variety, shown above, and most of these come from the southern coast. In fact, about 70% of the meonggae eaten in Korea come from the waters around Tongyeong, in South Gyeongsang Province. Farmed meonggae have fewer spiny knobs than wild meonggae. There’s also another variety with completely smooth skin, called bidan (비단, or silk) meonggae, that is typically harvested from the wild on the east coast. It’s sometimes called a “sea peach” in English. And lastly, you may occasionally come across a variety called dol (돌, or stone) meonggae, whose outer covering is a dark cement gray and looks, quite frankly, not very pretty. They’re said to be a little less salty than common meonggae, and are harvested from the east coast near Donghae where the waters are colder. One popular way to eat dol meonggae in seafood restaurants is to cut them in half and use them as cups for soju.
The full official name of meonggae is “ureongsuaengi” (우렁쉥이) but it’s rarely used—in fact, the nickname “meonggae” has become so common it’s accepted as a standard term in reference texts.
We sometimes call meonggae “bada-ae ggot” (바다의 꽃, flowers of the sea). When you pull up a bunch from the sea, it looks like bright red bouquet. And though its odd, bumpy shape might suggest otherwise, it has such a lovely fragrance when you cut it open.
flavor profile: Some people say that meonggae has a hint of gasoline, so for them, it can be a little difficult to enjoy. But to me (and many others), meonggae is almost floral. It has a bittersweet aftertaste that reminds me of ginseng and lingers on the tongue—it’s addictive!
how to choose: Farmed meonggae are harvested from March to May and are most sweet in April and May. After May, the sweetness goes down and the bitter flavors increase. Keep in mind that wild meonggae season is a bit later, usually in mid-summer. Look for plump bodies that aren’t too deflated—it should be firm to the touch and not squishy. Try to get meonggae with a vivid red color that’s not too yellow-brown.
how to prepare: When you buy meonggae at the fish market, the seller will usually clean it for you right there, removing the thick skin and guts. But if you buy whole meonggae, you’ll need to clean it at home: Clean it over a bowl to catch the juices. Slice off the very top and the bigger bumps, then cut down one side lengthwise. Cut off the base last, then peel off the skin like you’d peel a fruit. Cut the flesh into bite-sized pieces but save the juices (strain it once in a fine sieve)! Then rinse the meonggae under running water lightly and put back back into the strained juices. See the recipe link below for photos and detailed directions.
how to eat: Meonggae hoe (pronounced “hwae,” 멍게 회, raw meonggae) and meonggae bibimbap (멍게 비빔밥) are the most common ways to eat it. There are two kinds of meonggae bibimbap, one with fresh raw meonggae and one with slightly salt-cured meonggae. Local people also eat meonggae jeotgal (멍게 젓갈, salted fermented meonggae).
Meonggae bibimbap (멍게 비빔밥)
how to store: Meonggae goes bad pretty quickly. If you have live meonggae, you can store it in an open container of salted water for 2 or 3 days in your fridge. But if it’s cleaned and you’re not going to eat it within a day, freeze it. Otherwise it becomes very watery. You can thaw it overnight in your fridge when you need it. Note that when you freeze it, the flavor gets stronger and the flesh gets chewier.