▲ A delicious galchi spread. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
I will never be able to look at galchi the same way again.
Galchi (hairtail fish in English) is a beautiful, silver, eel-like fish that is generally caught in Jeju’s waters during autumn. This was the reason why I suggested to Jeju food expert Yang Yong Jin that it be the dish of our next meal together for our Flavors of Jeju series.
Little did I know that this beautiful fish contains a gruesome story of the island’s past.
He suggested we meet at Fish General restaurant in Shin Jeju. I perused the menu and was a little shocked by the price. This fish was obviously not peasant food, but rather the dish of kings, or at least well-to-do government officials.
Yang arrived and immediately ordered galchi prepared three different ways; galchi jorim (a thick stew originating from the mainland featuring red pepper seasoning and radish), galchi guk (a soup with pumpkin and zucchini), and galchi gui (grilled fish with a dash of salt).
“Now is fall,” said Yang, “and it is the time of year when galchi is good.”
He explained that galchi is an “impatient fish,” dying almost immediately after being hooked on the fishing line. Traditionally this meant that in the hot days of summer galchi would begin to spoil and by the time the catch was brought to shore, it was edible but no longer fresh. The cold water and air of autumn preserves the fish better and makes its “meat firmer” said Yang.
This is one reason, he continued, why the fish caught and served on Jeju tastes better than galchi caught off the mainland. “To catch galchi off the mainland you need to go far out into the ocean,” he said, because the fish lives in rocky environments which are only found far out to sea. Galchi must be frozen for the long transport back to land, which makes it no longer fresh once it reaches shore. Jeju’s rocky coast is the perfect habitat for this nocturnal fish.
Our food arrived and Yang ladled the galchi soup into my bowl. No spices were added to the broth. The dish was just fish, pumpkin, cabbage, and zucchini.
“Only Jeju people can make galchi soups because it is really fresh [here],” he said adding that creating the dish without the freshest of galchi would not be very appealing.
The soup had a very clean and light taste, and left a pleasant flavor.
The grilled galchi, Yang’s favorite of the three dishes for its simplicity and taste, was traditionally cooked in a kiln. Barley would be used for the fire and once it had almost extinguished, the fish would be buried in the piping hot cinders and ash. It was cooked in this fashion up until the 1970s when Jeju kitchens did away with the kiln and installed stoves instead.
At this point of our lunch I will admit to being a little disappointed with the fish for lacking a riveting history. It’s relevance to Jeju seemed minimal, it had many bones to pick through (which I hate) and other than being a beautiful looking aquatic creature, it didn’t do much for me.
So I asked Yang if there was anything interesting about this fish that I didn’t already know?
He began to answer, then laughed to himself and said, “I will finish the story when we are done eating.” Laughing again he added. “It’s a little scary.”
So we continued to eat and he told me that galchi wasn’t always expensive, but that due to overfishing the price had shot up. Then he saw me struggling with the bones and said that traditionally you would put the meat with the bones in your mouth, chew it as fine as possible then add rice to help “shove it down your throat.”
We had finished eating and were about ready to leave, so I asked Yang to finish the story and again he oddly warned me that it is a little scary.
“Galchi; it’s not a vegetarian fish. It eats everything. It will eat anything,” he said, continuing that it is generally believed, though there is no documentation to back it up, that “In the past, when the Japanese people occupied Korea,” at the end of the Second World War, “their last base was Jeju. So, when [the Japanese] were pushed back, they tried to kick out all the Jeju people. They put them on tiny, little boats and sent them to the mainland.”
The ships he said were unstable, and with typhoons, thousands of people died.
“That year there were a little too many galchi,” said Yang. “That year, because Korea got its Independence in August, so in September, October, November, they would go out fishing right? Especially that year, the galchi was a little thicker, a little bigger.”
No one ate galchi then, Yang said. When they cut the fish open, fingernails were found in the intestines.
We left the Fish General, again in good spirits after conversing about lighter topics, and headed in our separate directions.
It was a very sobering story and I instantly understood why Yang was apprehensive about telling it, especially while eating. It is sometimes easy to forget the tragedies that occurred in this part of the world just more than half a century ago. But with scars that go deep everything is affected, and those horrors have some how touched every aspect of life here and if you do forget a reminder is sure to show itself.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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