Korean Eating: The Winter Delicacy Known as Gwamegi
As you look around the tables of food this winter in Korea, you may notice an addition that you don’t see the rest of the year; gwamegi (과메기) is half-dried Pacific herring or saury that comes into season mid-winter.
This fish dish which comes from the term “gwanmogeo” which would translate to “dried herring hung by lacing a cord through its eyes” is often eaten in regions where large hauls of fish are harvested like Pohang, Uljin and Yeongdeok. Guryongpo Harbor in Pohang is said to be the most famous place in Korea to get these bite size fishy goodies, but they can be found from south to north if you know where to look.
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Fresh herring are rinsed with sea water and then hung up to dry seaside where the salty breezes blow. They are frozen and placed outdoors to repeat a process of freezing at night and defrosting during the day until the water content in the fish has dropped to 40%. This process only takes three to four days. The salty wind prevents the fish from rotting and is said to be the most important element in producing delicious and chewy gwamegi. Never one to pass up a good fish dish while in Busan (the cod soup is one of my favorites), I dug right in as instructed. Some say this fish is smelly, but maybe since I’m a fish person, I didn’t notice a fishy odor of any sort. In fact, a part of the process for preparation is to wash the fish in Korean green tea so that it helps to mask the fishy odor making it even more appealing.
Often gwamegi will be served at Korean style raw fish restaurants. The rest of the year, raw fish and other seafood will grace the menu but come winter, gwamegi will make a short but popular appearance.
Accompanied by a multitude of vegetables and different types of seaweeds, it is a must try for any foodie looking for a unique treat in Korea. If you really want to get gung-ho about it, Pohang holds an annual gwamegi festival each November for lots of Pacific herring fun. Check it out to see first hand how the fish is prepared and hung to dry. It’s definitely a photo-op if there ever was one. The dish is also pretty healthy as it’s rich in DHA and omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids which help to prevent the aging of skin. Who doesn’t want that?
My Korean family down in Busan also has some on hand in the winter when its available and that’s how I happened to try it. While I’ve had it before, it’s always a bit different when your father-in-law is the one preparing it. I watched as he carefully and adeptly took these long dark brown fish from a bag and proceeded to de-skin them and then slice them into bite size pieces. My mother-in-law carefully prepared baskets of a variety of greens as well as dried seaweed and wet seaweed too. There are also green onions and leeks along with raw garlic and a sauce that is a made with red pepper paste mixed with sugar and vinegar. The gwamegi is then wrapped in the leaves and seaweed and the toppings are added in to taste.
Don’t get caught up in what you wrap around the gwamegi or in what order you do it. My husband prefers his with the dried seaweed, the red sauce and some leeks. My father-in-law prefers his with the kelp and red sauce and garlic. I even ate the fish as is just to see what it tastes like on its own. With lettuce or without, with seaweed or without, this is an oily fish meal that is enticing and delicious especially when coupled with some Korean soju as my father-in-law would recommend.
If you have an appetite for a winter Korean delicacy, this is the meal for you.