Jeju Citrus-itis, to be exact. Come winter and it’s time for gamgyul (감귤, tangerines/mandarin oranges) and hallabong (한라봉), the top citrus fruit that hail from Jeju Island. As Steve wraps up his Jeju Travel series here on the Korea Blog, I thought it would be apt to have a post about Jeju’s most famous product and Korea’s favorite winter fruit.
Although global warming has created a slight shift in Korea’s climate, Jeju is traditionally the only place where tropical fruit are grown, among which tangerines are the most famous. They have been cultivated on the island for centuries, but because they were grown in small volume, most were sent and presented as gifts to the king.
During the Japanese occupation and throughout the Korean War, the fruit was quite neglected and it was only until the 1960s and 1970s when they made a comeback in popularity. They have remained popular ever since, for they are extremely sweet and juicy, without acute tartness which can be found in most citrus fruit.
Hallabong are the funny looking citrus. A hybrid mandarin orange originally developed in Japan, it was introduced to Korea in the 1990s and adopted as a local variety with a new name. The fruit is larger and sweeter than the Jeju tangerine with a nub-like top. This characteristic probably earned its name Hallabong, which literally means “peak/hill of Halla”, the tallest mountain in Jeju Island. Less cultivated than tangerines, they demand a higher price.
Both fruit are harvested in the winter and as the New Year holidays (both solar and lunar) fall in the winter, make popular gifts. Even all the little neighborhood supermarkets would have sets of them being sold, and the fruit trucks would have piles and piles of them for purchase on the street.
Many of the fruit are sold in large boxes and many families buy them in large boxes and store them in their veranda pantry as is. Because the tangerines are easy to peel, small enough to fit comfortably in your hand (and the smallest ones can pop in your mouth completely), sweet and not sour; they disappear at a very alarming rate. A family can easily consume a whole box while watching a K-drama on TV after dinner. (This happens quite frequently; you hear about it all the time.)
The fruit are so popular that there’s even a saying in Korean that if you eat too much tangerines your palms would turn yellow. Funnily enough, this is true, as every Korean has experienced while growing up. Scientifically, it’s the beta-carotene in the fruit which accumulates in the skin and creates a yellow tinge, but I personally think it’s the juice from the peel that is the main culprit. Anyway, I think mothers came up with that saying just to discourage kids from gorging themselves on tangerines; tangerines aren’t cheap and having yellow palms isn’t really a big deal.
Of course, there are the by-products, most notably juice. Jeju tangerine juice always has a picture of a harubang (하르방/하루방) on it, the protective stone statue made in the form of a grandfather. It is sweeter and less sour than “regular” orange juice. I personally prefer it to orange juice in the mornings, as it is much easier on an empty stomach.
Then there are beverages of the alcoholic kind. Wines and liquors made from tangerines or flavored with tangerines are available on the market. The latter tend to be very sweet wines suitable as dessert wines, while the former are less sweet, like the wine “1950” (the height of Halla Mountain), which is a white wine made from fermented tangerines.
For the sweet tooth, there are chocolates. If you go to Jeju, you must buy chocolates. It’s like a rite of passage for the Jeju tourist, no matter what your nationality. There are many different kinds of chocolates available at the duty free and specialty shops, but when in Jeju, no contest, it’s either the tangerines or hallabong chocolates you want. I always buy them. I’ve discovered that the normal square chocolates have deeper flavored dark chocolate compared to the ones shaped like harubang, but the harubang ones definitely make better gifts.
Jeju holds a festival every November in honor of its famous fruit. There is also a museum on the island dedicated to the tangerine.
However, it isn’t only in Jeju where you can enjoy the joys of the tangerine and hallabong. As I’ve mentioned before, all you need is a box to be perfectly happy. (Trust me when I say a grocery bag would not be enough. It’s cheaper to buy a box in the long run.) Hug that box and start munching away!
*Note: The Korean word gamgyul (감귤) is being translated in English in different ways on various official sites: tangerine, mandarin orange, and Jeju orange. They basically mean the same thing.