Jeju Chammohm

Ark of taste
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Sargassum fulvellum is one of several edible seaweeds found in the coastal waters of the Korean peninsula. It is a particularly important food on Jeju, a large volcanic island off the south coast of South Korea. In standard Korean, this species is known as mojaban, while in the Jeju language it is known as mohm. However, because these terms can be applied to several different kinds of seaweed, chammojaban (“true mojaban”) and chammohm (“true mohm”) are often used to distinguish Sargassum fulvellum from other types of mojaban/mohm, some of which are not edible. Sargassum fulvellum grows on rocks in the subtidal zone, usually at depths of at least 3-5 meters. It can grow to a length of several meters, and small air sacs help it to remain upright in the water so that the fronds (the seaweed equivalent of leaves) stay nearer to the surface, where they can gather more light for photosynthesis. The period of most vigorous vegetative growth is in late winter and early spring, just before the reproductive phase. In Korea, this species is harvested from the wild and, as of relatively recently, also cultivated; the cultivated form typically has thinner stipes (the seaweed equivalent of a stem) and narrower fronds than the wild form.

In the waters around Jeju, most chammohm is still wild harvested; the island also imports farmed chammohm from the mainland. For centuries, female divers known as haenyeo have been primarily responsible for gathering Jeju’s marine resources. They pass their knowledge from mother to daughter, and the culture of the Jeju haenyeo is included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. These women collect various kinds of shellfish and seaweed, working with simple tools and without oxygen tanks (the most experienced haenyeo, known as sanggun, can dive to depths of 15 meters or more). Most of the chammohm harvest takes place in January and February when tender new shoots are forming. Using a bladed implement called a jonggaehomi, which resembles a long-handled sickle, the haenyeo cut off just the tops of the shoots. Traditionally, due to the short harvest season, people would order a year’s supply of chammohm in advance and then dry it. The tougher chammohm harvested later in the season can also be eaten and is suitable for use in soups (some people actually prefer the chewiness of more mature chammohm). Young, soft chammohm is used in salads. Perhaps the most common recipe that incorporates mohm is mohm guk. This soup, which is an iconic dish in Jeju’s cuisine, is based on a long-simmered broth of pork, pig bones, and blood sausage (sundae). Fresh or dried mohm is added to the broth along with pig’s intestines (which have been rubbed with coarse salt and flour, washed, and cut into small pieces) and buckwheat flour. Sour kimchi can also be added. Mohm guk is an essential dish during community events such as weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites.

Over the last few decades, seaweed populations in some areas along the coasts of Korea, Japan, and elsewhere have been declining: A combination of factors (warming water temperatures, pollution, reduced nutrient loads, and growing numbers of fish and invertebrates that graze on Sargassum and other kinds of seaweed) have led to an increase in the extent of barren rocky areas where there were once seaweed forests. It is estimated that, by the end of 2004, almost a third of the coastal waters around Jeju had become barren. At the same time, the number of haenyeos is also decreasing—most of the divers are elderly and there are very few young women interested in becoming divers. This is problematic not only because it threatens the future of an important cultural tradition, but also because the haenyeos have intimate, long-term knowledge of the sea and its resources. In recent years, they have reported declines in most of the species that they traditionally harvest. Efforts are underway in Jeju and elsewhere to repopulate barren areas with Sargassum fulvellum and other seaweed species that provide important habitat for many marine animals, thus supporting local fisheries and the general health of the ecosystem. Maintaining the culture and traditional knowledge of the haenyeo must also be emphasized, as these women are vital stewards of Jeju’s marine ecosystem, and perhaps the best judges of its health.

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