Winter winds make city life this time of year just a little more miserable, but out along the coast, they help create a variety of natural, open-air dried seafoods.
One of these is gwamaegi (과메기), a dried fish traditionally made from cheongeo (청어, Pacific herring). (You can listen to our Local Eats episode on gwamaegi here.) A friend of ours calls it “fish jerky,” and the analogy is apt—it’s a chewy, dense meat full of flavor. Hundreds of years ago, during the Joseon Dynasty, gwamaegi was called gwan-mok-cheong-eo (관목청어), meaning “herring skewered through the eye”—the skewers were used to hang the fish for drying. In the local dialect of the Pohang region, gwan-mok was pronounced “gwamaeg,” hence, gwamaegi.
Starting in the 1960s, however, herring catches began to decline in Korean waters, so people starting replacing herring with ggongchi (꽁치, Pacific saury). Ggongchi are slightly smaller, skinnier fishes with a little less oil. “Everyone in this area dries their own fish,” the gwamaegi maker told us as he drove us to his deokjang (덕장, seafood drying facility), gesturing towards the small racks of silver fish in front of almost every house in the village.
We were rattling along the roads of Guryongpo Village, the center of gwamaegi production in Korea—about 90% of the country’s gwamaegi is made around the city of Pohang and 80% comes from specifically from nearby Guryongpo. Guryongpo sits along a small peninsula facing south east and gets the winds coming right off the ocean. Many of the deokjang are located right along the coast, but Mr. Park’s sits on a hill that overlooking the sea. You can still feel the cold ocean breeze here, and that’s important—it’s essential for making gwamaegi. The conditions for natural open-air drying have to be just right: the flesh must get colder and expand at night when temperatures drop to minus 10C, then warm and shrink in the day when temperatures rise to no more than 10 above zero Celsius. Ocean winds, which should stay around a brisk 10m/s, help dry and preserve the meat.
While saury gwamaegi takes around three days to dry, herring gwamaegi takes about a week to dry. And since it has more bones, requiring greater effort and skill to fillet, it results in a pricier product. Despite the higher price, however, herring gwamaegi may be making a comeback. Herring catches are actually on the rise with saury taking more of a hit these days, and current trends are leading consumers to ask for the “original” product.
For as long as I can remember, people would start talking about having gwamaegi whenever the cold winter winds started to blow. Gwamaegi is a very seasonal and special local dish, but at the same time it can be a fun ingredient for your winter fish selection. In addition to the two types of fish mentioned above, herring and saury, there are also two different gwamaegi preparations: one is dried for about 15 days without being gutted and is called “tongmari.” The other is gutted and dried for 3 to 4 days, and is known as “baejigi.” Tongmari is mostly eaten by locals in the southeast and not so much in Seoul, but if you happen to find some keep in mind you’ll have to fillet them before eating.
flavor profile: Since herring and saury are both quite oily fish which swim very fast, they are quite fishy and oily. Drying intensifies the flavor and makes it more complex. In Korea, we usually pair this fish with a variety of vegetables as ssam (쌈, vegetable wraps), and eat it as a side dish when drinking. It pairs well with Korean alcohol. Gwamaegi made of herring has a slightly deeper and less fishy flavor than saury gwamaegi—it’s really a matter of personal preference.
how to choose: Try to get gwamaegi that has a 25–30% moisture content. You should feel some resistance when you press down on the flesh.
how to eat: Gwamaegi is usually served with ssam, including winter cabbage leaves, dried raw gim (김, laver) and fresh miyeok seaweed. Layer according to your preference, for example: one crispy cabbage leaf, a piece of gim, a few spring onion pieces, a slice of raw garlic, maybe a chili and then your piece of cleaned gwamaegi. Finish with a few drops of vinegared gochujang. You can go with the fresh seaweed as a wrapper as well.
how to prepare: Gwamaegi is usually as either whole fillets of fish or already cleaned pieces. If you have fillets, then you can simply peel the skin off using your fingertips from the top of the fish. It comes off very easily.
how to store: Gwamaegi has a lot of oil and it is not a fully dried fish. So if you keep them in the fridge, it makes them gradually dry out even more. If you are planning to eat them later, wrap them first with wax paper and then use plastic wrap to create an airtight seal over the paper. The ideal situation would be wrapping it with a vacuum sealer. Store them in the freezer.
If you’d like to order some gwamaegi for yourself, here’s the contact info of the two deokjang we visited:
Guryong Sangsa (구룡상사) owner Mr. Park (대표: 박만용): +82-10-3531-3678
Won Susan (원수산): +82-54-5765, www.wonsusan.com