Hwangtae: open air freeze-dried pollock
Of all the fish in the sea, myeongtae, or walleye pollock, has a special place on the Korean table—it’s sometimes called the “gukmin saengseon” (국민생선), or “the national fish.” Hanging over the doors of some shops or restaurants in Korea, you might find an “aekmaki bukeo,” a dried myeongtae wrapped in white string, so that its twisted, bug-eyed face will scare off bad spirits and its gaping mouth will swallow them up. Myeongtae is also the fish of choice on ritual tables honoring the ancestors, because the Chinese character for “myeong” means “bright,” and symbolizes making your vision bright and clear. There are several varieties of myeongtae which you can read about here, but today, it’s hwangtae that we’ve come to Gangwon Province to see. Hwangtae is pollock that is naturally freeze-dried while hanging from wooden stands in fields called deokjang.
Boots crunching over snow, we follow a deokjang owner, or sajangnim, out to the fields. Walking between the rows of hanging fish feels a little bit like walking through a library—rows of drying fish stacked above, below and ahead of you make papery rustling sounds in the wind. One is tempted to pull a fish down and start reading the spots on its silver-gray back. Starting in December, the sajangnim tells us, boats bring in loads of myeongtae to Jumunjin Port on the east coast, where they are gutted and cleaned, then shipped off to the deokjang owners, who have pre-ordered their fish. This season, he’s ordered 6,000 pyeon (around 120,000kg) of myeongtae—it’s no small business. Given the enormous cost and the vast size of the deokjang, most deokjang are operated communally.
This area of Gangwon-do, Daegwallyeong, is especially good for making hwangtae because it has more extreme temperature fluctuations and because the wind is bitterly cold and fierce here (it’s called a “kal-baram,” literally, a knife wind). It’s not the most hospitable environment for people (we get a taste of the kal-baram over the course of the day—we can confirm that it’s cutting), but for making hwangtae it’s perfect. Out here, the hwangtae is freeze-dried over the course of months, resulting in an extra-tender, almost fluffy golden flesh that’s highly-prized and more expensive than any other form of pollock.
Myeongtae are hung in the deokjang starting around December, and as they freeze the flesh expands, shrinking again as it warms. This regular expansion and shrinking tenderizes the meat as it dries. You have to keep an eye out for the weather—snow is fine, but at the first sight of rain, the sajangnim and his co-workers dash out to the deokjang, gather the fish together and drape plastic sheeting over the fish. If the hwangtae absorb any water, they melt and spoil.
Finally, at the very end of March, they pack up the hwangtae into big net bags, where they age ever so slightly for a month or two, before being packaged and shipped off for sale.
One unfortunate fact we learned is that Korean myeongtae are essentially extinct—most now come from Russia. Unfortunately, the “national fish” is not quite so national anymore. One thing to keep in mind: Catching nogari, young myeongtae, is illegal so please reconsider your order the next time you’re at the pub and looking for a side of dried or fried nogari with your beer. Stick with hwangtae in your soup the next morning—it’s a classic hangover cure.
Hwangtae is one of the many names of myeongtae (there are more than 40 different names for this fish in Korean). I guess it shows how crazy Koreans are about their food. If there is one thing you have to know about hwangtae, it’s that it’s a heaven-sent cure for hangovers.
how to eat: Hwangtae can be cooked in many ways but one of the most popular ways is making soup. It has so much methionine which helps breaks down alcohol. This makes it a popular “haejang” (해장, hangover cure).
how to select: Choose fish with a natural light golden color. Try to avoid overly yellow fish (those are rapidly dried indoors). In terms of texture, the best quality fish will flake like bread crumbs when you scratch it.
how to store: Avoid humidity, wrap tightly in plastic, and keep away from light—do this and it will last for years. Moms and other home cooks these days keep hwangtae in the freezer, but you can store it at room temperature in a cool, dark place.
how to cook: One of the simplest and easiest ways to eat hwangtae is the hangover soup mentioned earlier, simply called hwangtae-guk (황태국). You can also served it grilled with a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce as hwangtae gui (황태구이), a popular dish in Gangwon Province, or as a shredded, seasoned side dish called hwangtae muchim (황태채 무침).