I was staring at my order in front of me, wondering if I really, really wanted to dig in.
I knew I had definitely ordered gimbap, the famous rice roll wrapped in dried seaweed laver, but instead of the usual salted radish, vegetables, ham, and other favorites, the ingredients inside the roll were starkly unique.
Sticking out from one end of the gimbap was the head of a mackerel fish (ggongchi), and out the other, its tail. This, to be sure, is a rare sight even for most Koreans, and the fish’s sad eyes peering out from the roll made me hesitate to pick up the first piece.
However, it didn’t take long for me to discover that its taste is completely at odds with the weird presentation. It was flavorful, not greasy or smelly as first I imagined. The rice, along with the nutty scent of sesame oil, chewy dried seaweed, and the suitably salty and juicy fish, were an excellent combination.
▲ Photo by Kim Jung Lim
▲ Photo by Kim Jung Lim
This amazing dish was invented more than 20 years ago in the busy kitchen of a Japanese-style restaurant in Seogwipo City. Back then just a busy young waitress, Kang Ji Won is the current owner of Woojeong Huitjip (huitjip is a Korean word denoting a Japanese-style restaurant) in the Seogwipo Maeil Olle Market.
“When I came into the kitchen feeling hungry, the cooks, oh, they were kind to me. They made me gimbap with mackerel,” she said. For her, ggongchi gimbap was a food for the hardworking and hungry restaurant staff — a quick meal with leftover grilled fish.
After opening her own restaurant nine years ago, Kang still had fond memories of that gimbap and sometimes made it for free for her regular customers. It garnered positive reviews, which prompted her to put it on the menu seven years ago as a special item.
However, it didn’t sell well at first. According to Kang, there is a reason why other restaurants don’t sell ggongchi gimbap, even though they know the dish and its recipe. It turns out that as a regular menu item, it entails too much work; one must grill each fish to order and painstakingly remove its spine. The grilling technique requires great finesse to ensure the meat is neither overcooked nor raw. Also, if the grilled fish is too hot or too cool, removing the bones can be extremely difficult.
Now, though, Kang doesn’t need to make it herself, she can trust her skilled staff.
“We always try to serve our customers with kindness even when they order just one gimbap because they come here for this food from far away! There are people who say, ‘I came from Gyeongsang province,’ ‘I’m from Seoul,’ or ‘I visited to taste this’... I feel sorry and grateful [so I do this job], not simply to earn 3,000 won from each order.”
Like many other restaurateurs, she is very happy when her customers compliment her on the “delicious” food. She said even though her restaurant updates its menu frequently, she will not drop the mackerel rice roll.
As for initial reactions to the mackerel roll, she said most who order it show “surprise, interest, or concern ... But after tasting it, most of them say ‘Wow, it’s better than it looks!’”
Lastly, here are Kang’s tips on how to eat a mackerel rice roll.
“We put salt on the fish before we grill it, and parts can have different amounts of salt. So you may find a certain piece a little salty and another piece not salty. This is unavoidable.” She continued, “You should eat when it is warm. I suggest finishing it here, not taking it to go.”
Woojeong Huitjip 32 54-gil, Jungang-ro, Seogwipo City (close to the parking lot inside the Seogwipo Olle Maeil Market) Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (closed Tuesdays) Tel: 064-733-8522 or 010-5063-3378
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