Mention jeoneo (전어, spotted gizzard shad) anywhere in Korea, and someone is bound to bring up the popular saying “전어 굽는 냄새는 집 나간 며느리도 돌아오게 한다.” “The smell of grilled jeoneo will make even the runaway daughter-in-law come home.” Korean women traditionally moved into the husband’s home after marriage, and so the strained relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is a pretty common trope (though many Korean women will assure you that there’s plenty of basis for it). In any case, whether you’re a daughter-in-law or not, this savory little fish will have you asking for seconds.
Note: If you’d like to learn about jeoneo in podcast form, our episode of Local Eats on Koreascape can be downloaded here.
Jeoneo (Konosirus punctatus) is native to the Pacific waters around Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s a near relative of the sardine and the herring, with the same agility and gleaming silver skin. Break down the name jeoneo into its Chinese character roots, and you get jeon (전), which means “money,” and eo (어), which means “fish.” Some people say this is because jeoneo is worth its weight in gold.
There’s no better (really, no other) season for jeoneo than fall. It’s the time of year when the evenings are crisp, the skies are cloudless and blue, and you start to think about platefuls of crispy grilled jeoneo and piles of raw jeoneo slices. Between September and October, the jeoneo return from their deep sea summer home, where they’ve been filling up on plankton and getting nice and fat. They head straight for the brackish waters where rivers meet the sea, where they’ll winter before heading back out in spring. Now is when they’re plump and full of oily, fatty flesh, but they’re still young enough that their bones are soft enough to chew right through. After October, their bones harden and they’re no longer quite as easily edible.
We headed straight for the southwest coast, to Hongwon Port in South Chungcheong Province, where we’d heard that jeoneo boats gather. Unluckily for us, jeoneo were in short supply—not only had there been a storm the day before, but also, as one local restaurant owner explained, this summer has been a particularly dry one. Drier rivers means saltier waters and a tougher environment where the jeoneo like to congregate. Luckily, there were still enough in the tanks for lunch… and then, shortly after eating, we heard that the boats had come in to a port further down the coast, delivering a load of just-caught jeoneo to the restaurant. If only we’d waited an hour more!
Jeoneo might bring the runaway daughter-in-law back home, but there’s also another saying about it: “가을 전어 머리엔 깨가 서말,” which roughly translates to “There are three kilos of sesame in the fall jeoneo’s head.” In other words, the fish becomes so nutty and oily this season, and the fish head in particular is full of oil. Nuttiness (고소함, gosoham) in Korean cuisine is often described in terms of sesame oil. There are three common ways to eat jeoneo, plus one special local recipe.
how to eat:
hwae (raw sliced fish): Jeoneo is a picky fish—they don’t usually live longer than two days in the water tank—so hwae availability depends on the catch. The oil in fall jeoneo is full of omega-3 fatty acids, and there’s a really distinct nutty flavor while you are chewing on the bone together with the flesh. Don’t forget, now is the season for jeoneo with bones. It really depends on the size, but by November, jeoneo tend to be quite big and their bones get hard.
hwae muchim: This spicy salad can be prepared with thinly sliced vegetables, like cabbage, carrot, onion and perilla leaves. It is typically seasoned with vinegar gochujang.
gui: Grilled jeoneo (전어 구이) is one of the most popular ways to eat this fish. It has a very distinct nutty smell when cooked. The flesh becomes very soft, almost melting in your mouth but if it is chilled, it becomes quite stiff and tasteless, so please enjoy when hot! Also, jeoneo is eaten whole, from head to tail, and it’s even tastier if you chow down with the bones. The head has a lot of oil, so even if you’re feeling a little hesitant to chew on the fish head, please go for it. You really don’t want to miss out.
bam jeot (밤젓, salted jeoneo stomach): There are many kinds of salted, fermented fish sauces (or jeotgal, 젓갈) in Korea, but jeoneo stomach makes a very special type of jeotgal. It’s mainly produced on the southwest coast and it’s not well-known in Seoul. The name “bam” (meaning chestnut) comes from the round, chestnut-shaped bead-like organ in their stomach that creates a very special texture when you chew the jeotgal. Cleaning 1kg of fish gives you about a spoonful of stomach organs, so not many people get involved in this business—it’s a pretty rare kind of jeotgal. If you do manage to get your hands on a jar, you can eat it plain with rice, or you can season it with garlic, chili, ggaesogeum, and sesame oil to balance out the flavors.
how to choose:
For hwae, Korean people tend to choose only live fish. Smaller sizes of fish can be sliced with bones, but fish over 20cm will need to be filleted. The preferred size of jeoneo is estimated by weight—when you get 15-20 fish per kilo, it’s called “떡전어” (ddeok jeoneo). For grilling, choose fish with many as scales as possible, with a clear and bright silvery white color on their bellies and a deep, bright blue color on its back side.
how to store:
If you want to store jeoneo for a long time, there two ways of going about it.
Drying: You can clean the guts out and dry. Before drying, sprinkle some sea salt on the fish, it will help to bring out more flavor. Dry until there is no more moisture in the stomach cavity. This will take about 2–3 days in Korean fall weather (15–17°C, dry, crisp, sunny weather).
Freezing: Clean out the gut, rinse with cold water and pat dry. Tightly wrap individual fish, making sure there’s no excess moisture, and freeze. Jeoneo has a very flaky, soft flesh, so you have to be careful when you defrost this fish. It needs to be defrosted in the refrigerator very slowly.