▲ A spicy plate of steamed angler fish. Photo by Kim Jung Lim
The Korean word for the devilish-looking angler fish is agui or agu, a rather fitting term meaning mouth and simultaneously an evil, greedy spirit that eats anything and everything. It should be no surprise then to know that in Korea this word is often used as an insult towards the gluttonous.
Though no matter how unattractive this fish may be, its nutritional value and taste should not be overlooked because of aesthetics. The devil fish (a commonly used term in Korea to describe the angler fish) is considered a health food that is high in protein and in vitamins A and E. When it comes to taste, each part of the fish has a distinctive flavor, making an angler dish a diverse and interesting meal.
To meet this peculiar fish I headed to Jeulgeoun Sikdang (“Joyful Restaurant” in English), a Seogwipo City eatery that specializes in agujjim, a steamed and seasoned angler dish. The owner Ko Ae Ja came to Jeju 16 years ago and gained employment with Jeulgeoun Sikdang as a staff member for two years. Within those 11 years she also gained valuable experience through working at other restaurants including sushi, and chueotang (ground loach soup) places. Then three months ago, she took over the 11-year-old Jeulgeoun Sikdang as its new owner.
The restaurant has been popular with locals for some time now, but recently its customer base has grown to consist of half locals and half tourists. On weekends, in particular, it welcomes many tourists who first heard of Jeulgeoun Sikdang from bloggers who have written glowing reviews of its agujjim.
Ko said that running this angler restaurant is more difficult than other types of restaurants. Seasoning and cooking the fish is easy she said, but preparing the fish must be done by hand and requires a lot of time. According to Ko, the angler fish’s taste differs depending on how it is prepared, which is the reason that no two angler fish restaurants are alike. As for her preparation method, she said it’s a secret.
Asked when she feels happiest working at her restaurant, she smiled.
“When the customer finishes eating and says ‘Oh, that was really delicious. I really enjoyed the meal and I will come again.’ [That’s when] I’m happiest. Making a profit is what we should consider second. When the customer feels satisfied with our food, I’m delighted.”
On the other end of the spectrum, she said that at times serving food to her clientele can be difficult.
“After we take an order, we need at least 20 minutes to prepare the food even when we are not very busy,” she said. “I think any food should be cooked long enough to bring out the flavors but some hot-tempered people cannot wait.”
She added, “I know it is difficult to meet all our customers’ demands. Eight or nine of our customers out of 10 give us a good review, and I think we’re successful. That makes me really happy.”
After speaking with the owner, my agujjim arrived on a white plate. There was a mountain of sliced angler fish, bean sprouts, warty sea squirt, and other parts of the fish mixed and steamed with hot-looking red pepper seasoning. Ko said that it not only contains the flesh of the angler fish, but also its entrails and eggs, which are very popular for their unexpectedly racy flavor.
The white flesh of the fish covered in spicy and delicious seasonings was very soft and it just melted in my mouth. The parts with bones and skin were chewy and juicy, as they are said to be full of collagen. As for the taste of the entrails and eggs... that truly depends on you!
Customers can order their meals to be either extremely hot, medium, or not hot at all. I chose the middle level, but it still seemed pretty spicy to me, so if you are not a kimchi or Mexican food maniac, I suggest you ask Ko for the least spicy option. Enjoy the angler fish at this “joyful” restaurant.
Jeulgeoun Sikdang 17 Jungang-ro 89-gil (Cheonji-dong), Seogwipo City Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (everyday) Phone: 064-733-2777
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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