Pohang is known as the home of Posco Steel, but it is also a coastal city with the Jukdo Market, one of the most impressive fish markets in Korea. Its harbors are populated with boats of all sizes, and in the horizon you can see them reaping the bounty of the sea.
If you go to Pohang in November through February, you’ll probably encounter the city’s famous food: gwamaegi. It is mackerel that has been dried in the cool sea air to concentrate the flavors and oils of the fish. Gwamaegi looks like dried venison and has a texture that is similar to smoked salmon or herring. In your mouth, it tastes like a pop of rich mackerel flavor mixed with sea salt. This flavor is heightened by its velvety texture. In fact, I could see this dish replacing beef jerky as a snack for it is rich in flavor, high in DHA and Omega-3, and easily transportable.
Gwamaegi can be enjoyed with the crisp taste of Korean soju (Korean distilled sprits), a vodka-like concoction that goes well with savory dishes like barbecued pork belly and tuna belly. In Pohang, you’ll find hundreds of restaurants serving gwamaegi. The local way to eat this dish is to make a veggie wrap with the cabbage, mackerel, garlic, chives, and a healthy dose of the vinegared chili sauce. The wrap is a harmony of flavors: the crisp cabbage and green onion tugging against the sharp garlic, the savory gwamaegi, and the cool taste of the vinegary chili paste.
According to Mr. Kim Jeom-dol, an executive of the local Gwamaegi Association, the dish has been around for a long time but has only gained commercial popularity in the last 15 years. When I asked him who made the original gwamaegi, he told me everyone claims to be the original, but nobody knows for sure.
According to Buemjin’s (a popular gwamaegi producer) Ms. Kim Jin-hee, the origin of gwamaegi was a happy accident. Long ago, Pohang’s harbors were famous for herring. As the men pulled up nets of fish, a few would slip out on to the deck. The herring would naturally dry out in the sun. One sailor―we don’t know out of curiosity or stupidity―decided to taste it. Surprisingly, it was good, so fishermen would leave the fish out on purpose.
Over time the preparation of the fish evolved. Herring was replaced with mackerel for flavor. Originally, they would take straw and loop it around the heads of five to ten fish and hang them in the kitchens. The dry heat and the wood burning cauldrons for soups and rice would slowly dry and smoke the fish. After it was dried, it would then be deboned and sliced. This method is not common these days, but at Pohang’s famous Jukdo Market, I was lucky enough to find Ms. Jang Jong-Hyun still making the fish this way. I asked her why many people changed the processing method.
“Mainly, it’s because of time,” she said. “It takes 15 days to make gwamaegi this way, but the new method only takes four to five days. The wood adds more flavor to the fish than just air drying it, but I guess speed and quantity is more important.”
I then asked her if the traditional way tasted better and she answered emphatically, “Of course,” as she handed me a piece. The fish was indeed smokier.
Mr. Kim Jeom-dol of the Gwaemagi Association told me, “Timing is everything. It is best to catch the mackerel in the months of September, November, and December for the mackerel are the plumpest and most of food they have eaten has transformed to fat. The mackerel are then prepared to become gwamaegi in early winter when the temperature is between 5 and 10℃.” This is why Pohang is perfect for making this delicacy. Its location by the sea and the essential northwest wind keep the temperature stable. He said, “If the wind and the temperature are not constant then the flesh becomes too black and doesn’t have the best texture and flavor.” The highest-grade gwamaegi has a reddish, brown hue. I was lucky to try some of this high-grade gwamaegi at a local favorite restaurant, Guryong Susan. At first bite, the fish was al dente, but then the texture softened and rounded; the flavor was savory yet salty―the essence evaporating in a smoky hale. Dipping the dried fish in a tart chili sauce and then eating it with some dried seaweed and lettuce was a perfect morsel.
Another must eat seafood in Pohang is mulhoe (raw fish in sauce) and steamed crabs. In January and February local king crabs come into season and it is a time that Jukdo Market is filled with people. The crabs are simply steamed and served with sauces and leaves for wrapping. The innards of the crab are then made into fried rice. Mulhoe is one of my favorite Korean dishes since the sauce is piquant yet spicy, and it brings the raw fish to life. It is like Spanish cerviche, and it goes well with rice. In Jukdo Market, I like to go to Yeonghae Hoesikdang.
They say that everything tastes better at the source. This is especially true of Pohang. The rocky seacoast, the salt waves, and the wintry, northwest wind add flavor to the region’s delicacies. It’s a taste that I will remember and will look forward to sharing with friends.
Add #963-182, Guryongpo-ri, Guryongpo-yeup, Nam-gu, Pohang City, North Gyeongsang Province
Yeonghae Hoe Sikdang (Inside Jukdo Market)
Add #573-9, Jukdo-dong, Buk-gu, Pohang City, North Gyeongsang Province
Park Sung Eun email@example.com
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