No, we don’t put them on pizza. However, myeolchi (멸치), the Korean anchovy, is one of the fundamental ingredients in Korean cuisine. They come in various sizes and are made into soups, stir-fried, deep fried, grilled, marinated raw, they are also made into basic condiments.
The use of myeolchi has a long history in Korea. Documents dating back to the Joseon Dynasty mention fishing for myeolchi, from the most northern region of the peninsula to the southernmost seas of Jeju. By the early 19th century, night fishing of myeolchi was widespread because myeolchi are attracted by light. In the late Joseon era, large volumes of myeolchi were being caught and consumed. Most myeolchi were sun-dried for easy preservation, while excess myeolchi were used for fertilizer.
Myeolchi has high calcium content, making it a must-eat food for kids. Most Koreans grew up hearing their mothers say, “Eat your myeolchi” instead of “Drink your milk”. Because of its high calcium content, it is a highly recommended food for osteoporosis so you’ll see elderly ajummas casually snacking on them from time to time as well.
The best myeolchi are called Jukbang (죽방) myeolchi and Namhae (남해) myeolchi. Both from Korea’s south sea, Namhae is the name of the region where the best quality myeolchi are caught, and Jukbang is called thusly because of the fishing method. This technique requires herding myeolchi into a fan-shaped area surrounded by a bamboo (juk, 竹) water fence. This system does not damage the myeolchi in any way, so the state of the fish is of high quality. The fishing of Jukbang myeolchi is highly regulated and a quota system is activated, so there is a limited amount available on the market, making them quite expensive.
Most of the commercially sold myeolchi is the dried version and although it can be used in many different ways, it is mainly used to make stock which is the base for many soups and stews. The most basic method is to put clean dried myeolchi with kelp in a pot of water and set to a slow simmer. This creates a clean yet deep tasting clear broth. Some people who want a deeper complex taste add scallions, red chili peppers, and mu (무, Korean radish).
Janchi guksu (잔치 국수, party noodles), the most basic Korean noodle dish, is made from this basic myeolchi soup stock. The simple taste of the myeolchi broth matches well with the dish and many think that additional ingredients take away from the true taste, so don’t be surprised to find the most popular janchi guksu restaurants’ noodles looking the most plain. The power lies in the broth, usually made from the highest quality myeolchi.
Another staple myeolchi dish is myeolchi bokkeum (멸치볶음), stir-fried myeolchi. It is usually lightly fried with green chili peppers, as the peppers provide copious amounts of Vitamin C which myeolchi doesn’t have, and the fat in myeolchi enhances the digestion of Beta-carotene in the peppers. With the calcium in myeolchi, this is one of the most nutritious and simple dishes you can make, so you’ll find it easily as a usual banchan (반찬, side dish) at the family dinner table and school lunches.
Stir-fried myeolchi can be made with myeolchi of various sizes and other additional ingredients, too. Although regular sized myeolchi is typically tossed with green chili peppers, the tiny janmyeolchi (잔멸치) are sometimes stir-fried with peanuts or other nuts. In both cases, the dish is mainly seasoned with soy sauce and starch syrup, gochujang (고추장, red pepper paste) is also commonly used. A bit of garlic and light spray of sesame seeds add the final touch.
Most of the myeolchi used in cuisine is the dried kind. They sell the already prepared pre-packaged versions in supermarkets, of course, but in the traditional markets you’d probably find the dried myeolchi in its entirety stacked high in piles. You buy them by weight, bring them home, and you have to prep them.
This is not an easy task. In fact, it’s quite tedious. You have to cleanly split the dried myeolchi in half, remove its bones and its innards, and remove the head should you wish to. If you don’t do this process and use the myeolchi as is, the resulting stock, for example, would taste bitter and extremely “fishy”. (The tiny janmyeolchi, on the other hand, are eaten whole.) Doing this adeptly takes years of experience, which is why mothers are so good at it.
Dried myeolchi is not only used in cooking, but can be eaten by itself. It’s a common and cheap anju (안주, side dish for drinking). If the quality of the myeolchi is good, it is eaten in its entirety, if not, the prepped myeolchi is set out. It’s usually eaten by dipping into gochujang but some people like to eat it with mayonnaise or a concoction of the two.
Not necessarily meant only to be anju, it makes for a healthy snack as well. Like I mentioned before, health-conscious ajummas like it for its calcium and they tend to feed it to their kids as much as possible. I know families who have jars of dried myeolchi on their dining table so people can have easy access to snack.
It isn’t solely dried myeolchi which is consumed; fresh myeolchi is also a welcome dish. Port cities, where markets boast an abundance of fresh fish, will always have a myeolchi specialty restaurant where they serve the freshest myeolchi. Myeolchi hweh (멸치회), raw myeolchi, can only be eaten when it is the freshest, or otherwise the fishiness can be overwhelming. Since the scent of myeolchi is stronger than the usual fish you eat as hweh, it is usually served marinated in a gochujang sauce with other vegetables such as minari (미나리, Korean dropwort). It can be eaten as is, or wrapped in leafy lettuce or perilla leaves or gim (김, dried seaweed).
For those who like their food fresh but cooked, grilled myeolchi is a good option. The myeolchi used in grilling is generally much bigger than their dried counterparts. You eat them whole, from head to tail. The myeolchi are usually grilled with no other seasoning with salt added from time to time. It’s highly recommended to eat them hot off the grill, when they are the most tender.
Everything tastes better when it’s fried, right? Deep-fried myeolchi is another dish popular as anju. It is also popular for kids who do not like the dried myeolchi dishes. Dipped in batter whole and deep fried, it delivers a tasty crunch which is highly addictive. Gochujang is the preferred accompanying sauce, although mayonnaise and tartar sauce are served these days as well.
Besides the dishes mentioned above, fresh myeolchi can also be made into a hot and spicy jjigae (찌개, stew).
Given that myeolchi is such an important ingredient in Korean cuisine, it’s not surprising that there would be many by-products. For the lazy or the busy, making myeolchi stock can be a hassle so there are convenient products which eliminate those long hours of simmering. Myeolchi powder (top right) is offered by many brands, while “myeolchi tea bags” have also shown up in the market (bottom right). And of course, what would you do without myeolchi fish sauce? You would also be able to easily find myeolchi at the banchan store, all premade and ready to eat.
All in all, when you think of anchovies and can only think of the salty pickled kind or pizza toppings, try out a bit of myeolchi. In all its glorious forms. You just might get addicted.