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Food stories from a chef

‘Tis the season for fish

Nov 04, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Jukdo Market in Pohang
Jukdo Market in Pohang

Autumn is already upon us. The air is crisp and cool. The sun still brings warmth. The brilliant red, orange and yellow foliage creates an artistic backdrop for avid mountain hikers on the weekends. Autumn is most definitely my favorite time of year. But importantly, Autumn fills me with anticipation because from now and all throughout the winter, it is the time to enjoy delicious seafood. With cooler weather, come thoughts of all the bounties that await. And of all the lush seafood to enjoy in October and November, there are two that I particularly enjoy: galchi (or hairtail fish, also known as cutlass fish) and bang-eo (or wild yellowtail).

Galchi is a long, flat and silvery fish with tender but meaty white flesh. Most galchi usually run two to three feet long and their shape resembles the shape of long silver swords. While mild white fish tend to be prized in western countries for their lack of flavor (fishy or otherwise), Koreans prefer their fish to be flavorful. Galchi is a great example as it has a moderately distinctive and pleasing taste, but it is still not overly fishy or oily. Although it’s actually a warm water fish, October and November is when most galchi in Korea are freshly caught and taste sweetest. Supposedly, galchi becomes sweeter after spawning which occurs in September. An immensely popular fish in Korea, the best galchi is line-caught off the coast of Jeju island.

A great non-spicy introduction to galchi is “galchi-gui” where the galchi is generously salted to bring out the flavor and grilled over an open flame. This preparation lets you taste the distinctive flavor of the galchi and it is so universally delicious and easy to eat that it’s even a favorite for many young Korean children. Some restaurants nowadays will impressively serve the three-foot long galchi whole in one elongated piece and even debone it for you.

But my favorite preparation though is “galchi jorim”, or braised spicy galchi, where the tender meaty flesh acts as the perfect foil for the fiery red gochugaru sauce. Here, the galchi is cut into long rectangles and braised together with sliced Korean radish in a spicy and slightly sweet red sauce. It is usually served piping hot in the metal pan in which it was cooked or sometimes it is cooked on a tabletop butane stove right in front of you. While rice is an integral part of any Korean meal, when it comes to galchi jorim the rice is an inseparable part of the dish. A mouthful of galchi jorim begs for a mouthful of white rice. One cannot eat it on its own. But galchi jorim is so addictive that your rice will be gone in no time. Try this dish, it will not disappoint.

galchi jorim, or braised spicy galchi (left) and galchi gui (right)
galchi jorim, or braised spicy galchi (left) and galchi gui (right)

Another fish you should seek out in the fall is bang-eo, or wild yellowtail. Although some types of fish are best during the spring and summer (sea bass, brown croaker, and eel come to mind), many fish, such as bang-eo, are most flavorful in the winter. One of the main reasons for this is that as the waters start to cool the fish begin to accumulate layers of fat. The fat keeps the fish warm and insulates them from the frigid temperatures of the ocean. These layers of fat are absolute game changers. Just as marbling in beef can really enhance the flavor of the meat, the fat content of fall/winter fish will transform its flavor. When I taste bang-eo in the late fall or in the winter, it makes me very happy.

Proper yellowtail season starts in November and the best place to try it is at the Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market in Seoul. This is where chefs and restaurant owners come from all over Korea to buy the freshest fish, but it is also open to the public. If you love seafood and you’ve never experienced Noryangjin, you are in for a treat.

Noryangjin, however, is not a market for the faint of heart. Prepare yourself. As you step inside the building that houses the market, all of your senses will be assailed at once: the sounds of the vendors loudly hawking their goods, the smell of the fresh seafood, the dampness in the air, the wet aisles beneath your shoes, the sight of all the tightly packed vendor stalls with cascading bubbling glass tanks filled with live seafood. For someone who grew up in the U.S., my first visit was at once a shock and a thrill. I had never seen so many live sea creatures in my life.

Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market in Seoul
Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market in Seoul

The vendors will compete with one another to grab your attention and it is not unusual for them to quickly grab your arm and steer you to their stall. Have fun, take your time and look around to see which fish and seafood are in season. Depending on the season, you might find king crab, octopus, shrimp, abalone, sea cucumbers, sea squirts and all types of fish. Except for larger fish or those that are not local such as tuna from Europe or salmon from Norway, pretty much most of the seafood is alive and kicking in water tanks. You name it, they have it. After a lot of pointing and haggling with various vendors, you can take your purchased live seafood and walk over to one of the restaurants inside the complex. Once inside, the restaurant staff can skillfully filet your fish to serve hwe (hoe) style which is similar to Japanese sashimi. They will serve it with soy sauce or a spicy tart cho-gochujang sauce, alongside a spread of banchan. Or, if you prefer, you can request that they steam or grill your precious seafood and make fish stew out of the heads and bones.

Unlike regular restaurants, these establishments do not have their own menu. They are set up to cook the seafood you purchase at the market. Therefore, they only charge you for the basic setup of banchan and sauces (W3,000/pp) and any beverages you may wish to order. They also charge a bit for the stew they can make with the heads and bones called jiri-tang (clear, non-spicy) or maeun-tang (spicy). This stew goes wonderfully with soju, or Korean style distilled vodka, and is a quintessential Korean pairing that I highly recommended.

There is deliciousness all around Korea at this time of the year but what excites me most is the return of fatty and delicious fish season. Whether you go to a restaurant for some galchi or visit Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market for fresh hwe, now is the time to go.

Galchi Restaurant in Jeju:

Saekdal Shikdang


Galchi Restaurant in Seoul:

Hanlasan Chungdam


Noryangjin Wholesale Fish Market:

‘Tis the season for fish

Chef Hooni Kim trained at Daniel and Masa in New York City before opening two restaurants there: Danji, the first Michelin-starred Korean restaurant in the world; and Hanjan. Born in Seoul, he divides his time between NYC and Korea, where he is the founder of Yori Chunsa, a nonprofit that feeds and trains orphans to become cooks. Chef Hooni is also the author of the highly acclaimed cookbook My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes published in 2020 by W.W. Norton & Company. 

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