People! You do know Korean food isn’t only about barbeque, kimchi, and bibimbap, right? (Right?) Okay, let’s say you do. Then tell me this: how many Korean fish dishes have you had? And can you name the fish you had?
We’ve already talked in detail about the esteemed myeolchi (Korean anchovy) before, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in the Korean fishdom. Like myeolchi, a lot of Korean words for fish end in –chi (치): galchi (갈치, cutlassfish), samchi (삼치, Japanese Spanish mackerel), kkongchi (꽁치, Pacific saury), chamchi (참치, bluefin tuna), neopchi (넙치, flatfish).
A lot of fish names also end in –eoh (어): godeungeoh (고등어, mackerel), cheongeoh (청어, herring), soongeoh (숭어, flathead mullet), nongeoh (농어, sea bass), bangeoh (방어, yellowtail), gwangeoh (광어, halibut), hongeoh (홍어, skatefish), jangeoh (장어, eel).
What’s interesting is that the fish whose names end in –chi generally do not have scales whereas the ones that end in –eoh do. (Exceptions always exist, of course.) Not all fish names end in those two syllables, though: daegu (대구, cod), myeongtae (명태, walleye pollock), jogi (조기, yellow croaker), gaori (가오리, ray), and dom (돔, seabream) are examples.
Korea, being a peninsula, has a long history of fishing. In early 19th century Joseon, the scholar Jeong Yakjeon (정약전) compiled information about the fish found in the area around Jasan Island (currently Heuksan Island) in the south seas into an encyclopedia called “Jasaneobo” (자산어보). The book covers over 155 species of sealife, especially with detailed information on the migration of herring and mackerel.
With all these species of fish, it is not surprising that there are many fish markets in Korea. Jagalchi Market in Busan and Noryangjin Market in Seoul are the most famous and definitely worth visiting.
The mackerel (고등어) has been the most common – and inexpensive – fish to show up on Koreans’ tables for centuries. Grilled salted mackerel (자반고등어) is “everyman’s dish”. It is also a “Mom dish” and can be found in small homey diners and food stalls in traditional markets. There is even a very popular classic rock song called “Mother and the Mackerel” (어머니와 고등어) which talks about a son realizing his mother’s love after spying a prepped mackerel in the refrigerator.
Where there is godeungeoh, there would be samchi. They are like peanut butter and jelly. Good apart, better together. Especially in those fish specialty diners in traditional markets where ajummas and halmonis grill the fish on little open burners at lightning speed and yell at you if you’re slow in ordering – those places are absolutely the best places to get grilled fish, by the way – if you order grilled godeungeoh, you’d probably also order a grilled samchi, or decide to order one prepared differently. I’ve rarely seen places that only sell the one type of fish.
Yeosu, the venue of the 2012 World Expo, is famous for samchi, so try it out when visiting.
Contrary to mackerel, the traditional “noble fish” is jogi (조기, yellow croaker). Jogi is a staple in Korean traditional formal dining – the one where there are a gazillion banchan (side dishes) laid out on the table – usually the jogi would be a smaller size to be able to serve one per person.
The more expensive type of jogi is the salted and dried version called gulbi (굴비). Cured by natural sea salt, gulbi from the county of Yeonggwang (영광) in Jeolla province is exceptionally famous and has been a staple on the King’s table since the 12th century. It is still an expensive product and consequently a popular gift for Chuseok and Seollal.
Another famous fish in Jeolla province – Korea’s foodie paradise – is hongeoh (홍어, skatefish). Not normally prepared skatefish but the deeply fermented type. And when I say deeply, I mean deeply. You know when a Korean says deeply, it means really, really, really deep; it is one of the stinkiest Korean dishes ever. Not even a lot of Koreans are able to eat it, people from Jeolla included.
The fish is fermented with accompanying “fertilizers” for some time which results in an extremely soft texture (even the bones) and also an acute smell of ammonia. The fish is generally steamed or put into jjigae (찌개, stew); in the case of the latter, the innards are considered a delicacy with its extremely piercing smell. Koreans call it “sinus opening”.
The famous dish samhap (삼합), “combination of three”, is hongeoh, kimchi, and boiled slices of pork, all eaten together. It is usually paired with the milky rice liquor makgeolli and will show up on the menu at every wedding in Jeolla province.
Drying fish for preservation is quite common in Korea. Names of the same fish change, too. Walleye pollock in its natural state is myeongtae (명태), when completely dried it is bugeoh (북어), half-dried it is kodari (코다리), caught in the winter and frozen it is dongtae (동태), when repeatedly frozen and dried in spawning season it is hwangtae (황태), and when a baby it is called nogari (노가리). It is quite the schizophrenic fish.
Bugeoh is commonly used in guk (국, soup), most notably, hangover soup. Kodari is usually steamed and doused with sauces and toppings, dongtae stew is a must in winter dining, hwangtae is on the expensive side and is prepared in various ways. Dried nogari is a popular anju (side dish for drinking) at drinking spots.
And of course, the roe of myeongtae is called myeongnan (명란), which is made into jeotgal (salted and fermented condiment) and also used in other dishes like soups and stews.
Eungalchi (은갈치), “silver cutlassfish”, may be the name of the galchi caught in the clear waters of Geomun-do and Jeju-do, but it is also a nickname for the shimmery silver grey suits that some celebrities (and celebrity wannabes) wear.
Galchi is prepared in every way, but mostly simmered in soy sauce or grilled. The prices have galchi have risen in recent years and unlike several decades ago, has become a rather expensive fish. Eating it raw is only possible when the fish is incredibly fresh, so raw galchi is best consumed when in the aforementioned regions. (Geomun-do is in the Yeosu region so another reason to visit Yeosu!)
Some fish are good raw, some are better suited to soups, some are best grilled. Cod is generally put into soup, eel is usually grilled. Hweh (회) is raw fish that is either cut in thin slices or thin strips; the most basic way of eating fish. (The official Romanization is “hoe” but that’s not the way it’s pronounced and since “hoe” has an actual meaning in English, I’m sticking with my spelling version.) It is eaten by dipping in the sauce of choice, whether gochujang (고추장, red pepper paste), doenjang (된장, fermented bean paste) or ganjang (간장, soy sauce) based. Like Korean barbeque, it is also eaten as ssam (쌈), wrapped in fresh leafy vegetables. Sea bass, halibut, and yellowtail are the most common at hweh restaurants, although any kind of fish may be eaten raw.
Grilled fish are called gui (구이), just add the name of the fish in front of gui and you have the name of the dish. Korean grilled fish are usually just salted before grilling and presented as is; nothing fancy at all. Jjim (찜) means steamed, jorim (조림) means simmered down in soy sauce. The same rules apply for the dish names.
Po (포) are flattened and dried, something like a jerky. Jwipo (쥐포) is made from filefish and is commonly seen being sold roasted in street stalls around the country. It is sweet and savory at the same time and is a popular as a snack. It used to be sold in movie theaters (along with dried squid) until many of the public decided they didn’t want to watch movies in a theater with fish fumes and is now rarely allowed.
I think that covers about half of the iceberg. Should I elaborate anymore, this would turn into a fish thesis, so I’ll stop here. And I even haven’t dealt with shellfish or other bounty from the sea or the multiple fish related festivals Korea has. Perhaps in another post.