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Grilled Gulbi, a Rice Stealer

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The Korean Peninsula is surrounded by water on its three sides, so it comes without surprise that Koreans can enjoy various fish dishes every season. And accordingly the recipes for the dishes are quite diverse. Fish is usually prepared hwe (raw), gui (grilled), or jorim (braised).
On the surface, the fish dishes Koreans enjoy may seem similar to those of the neighboring Japanese. But there is a big difference in the way Koreans prepare each fish dish compared to the Japanese. Take fish gui (grilled dishes), for example. Japan is an island country, and people there prefer grilling fresh fish, whereas Koreans, who live in a mountainous country, usually grill the fish that have been salted and dried. Among the many kinds of fish used for gui in Korea, the most popular one is gulbi. Gulbi is a salted and dried yellow croaker. When grilled on a gridiron, it absorbs a fiery scent that makes the fish taste and smell better. Imagine a piece of gulbi on a spoonful of freshly cooked white rice. It is an image every Korean would drool over.

Freshly Cooked White Rice and a Piece of Gulbi Make a Fantastic Harmony


There is an interesting anecdote about the origin of gulbi. During the rule of King Injong in the ancient Korean kingdom of Goryeo (10th to 14th centuries AD), there was a historical figure named Lee Ja-gyeom. He started a revolt but was captured and expelled to Beopseongpo, a port in Yeonggwang County of South Jeolla Province.
There, Lee first tried yellow croaker. He was so fascinated by the taste of the fish, which didn’t have a strong fishy smell and tasted sweeter when chewed, that even though he was the very person who led the revolt, he thought the fish ought to be served to the king. But it was not easy to send the fresh fish to the king’s palace so far away in the capital. That is why the only way to deliver the fish before it went bad was by salting it first and drying it in the sea breeze. Concerned with the fact that sending the fish could have been seen as a bribe asking to commute his sentence, Lee named the fish gul-bi (屈非), which literally means “not bowing (屈) cowardly (非).” Regardless of whether he had an ulterior motive or not, gulbi became the best gift to present to the king.

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Yeonggwang Gulbi, the Best Gulbi


Koreans particularly like Osari Yeonggwang gulbi, which is the fish from an early catch at high tide, processed in the Yeonggwang area. Yellow croaker is caught in many areas. Why is the croaker from Beopseong Port of Yeonggwang County regarded the best? It is because the way of salting and drying the fish there is different from that in other areas. The biggest difference is that in Yeonggwang County the yellow croaker is salted, layer upon layer, with the salt that has been dried in the sun for a year and thus lost its bittern. Elsewhere, Koreans employ the simple way of soaking the yellow croaker in salt water and drying it. The unique way of salting in Beopseong Port is referred to as “seopgan,” and it makes the fish tastier, with no fishy smell due to a long preservation period. In addition, the Yeonggwang area is endowed with propitious environmental conditions for drying the yellow croaker - abundant sunlight and the proper volume of wind.

Taste of Gulbi Recovering the Appetite Lost in Summer Heat


If we have to define gulbi in three words, it would be “salty, tasty, and pricey.” Although delectable, it cannot be eaten every day without limit due to the relatively high price. There is an amusing scene related to gulbi in a Korean folk tale about Heung-bu and Nol-bu (two brothers: one is rich, the other is poor), which all Koreans read in their childhood. Nol-Bu is a Korean version of Scrooge, rich but a miser. The scene depicts him hanging gulbi from the ceiling and then looking at the dangling fish one time after he has each spoon of rice. By doing so, he gets a vicarious satisfaction out of just looking at the fish. He even hits his son on the back of his head simply because the boy looks at the fish twice for one spoon of rice.
Gulbi tastes delicious whatever way it is cooked. No recipe would fail - whether it is grilling gulbi on a gridiron over a fire or steaming it with some garlic, green onion, and red pepper powder. Mixing pieces of well-dried gulbi with gochujang (red pepper paste) and ripening it for several months is also worth a try.
Gulbi is usually eaten with warm bap (cooked rice). But, with the addition of some water, the fish can also be eaten with rice after it has cooled down. It is a simple way to enjoy the fish particularly in the summer. A piece of gulbi on a spoonful of bap mixed with water can recover the appetite lost due to the summer heat.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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