Holiday is time for fish called 'gulbi'

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Holiday is time for fish called 'gulbi'

Down in the dried croaker capital of the peninsula, people are busily stringing up the fish along beaches and packaging them in boxes to fill big orders for the Chuseok holiday this month.

The Yeonggwang district of South Jeolla province, particularly an area called Beopseong inlet, is famous for its dried croaker, called gulbi. Dried croaker that comes from the district, or "Yeonggwang gulbi," is considered the best gulbi made, and is one of the most popular gifts for Chuseok, the Korean harvest moon holiday. Some 250 companies in Yeongwang process croaker into gulbi, and 210 of them work out of Beopseong inlet.

The area has a special way to make gulbi: People there first rub a layer of high-quality sun-dried salt onto the fish, and leave it on for three to six hours. By contrast, other regions usually soak the fish in salt water. The Yeonggwang method tends to shrink the fish, but makes for a better taste, gulbi makers there say.

Next, they take 20 croaker and string them together, then hang them from 8-meter-high stands on the beach, where the fish will be dried by sea winds for one or two days. When they're taken down, they're officially Yeonggwang gulbi. In fact, any croaker cured in the area are called Yeong-gwang gulbi, no matter where they are caught.

The bad weather on the peninsula this summer gave the gulbi makers precious few days to work, so they're scrambling to catch up. "We had a lot of rain this summer, so we have a good deal of croaker yet to be dried," says Choi Jong-hwan, 51, the head of Cheongsan Yutong, the third-largest gulbi maker in Yeonggwang. "We will have to work without a break this week."

Mr. Choi has been making gulbi for 26 years, and introduced Yeong-gwang gulbi to Seoul department stores in the early 1980s. He says that the recent typhoon hasn't hurt his holiday sales, and that his orders for Chuseok gift packages are up 10 percent over last year. Usually, his company ships 100 boxes of gulbi (each box weighs 25 kilograms) per day, but now it is shipping 250 a day.

Gulbi are not valued by their weight as much as by their size: The Korea Food Research Institute declared three years ago that only dried croaker longer than 20 centimeters can be called "gulbi."

Most gulbi, consequently are 20-25 centimeters, because croaker longer than 25 centimeters are rather rare. Accordingly, those big gulbi are very expensive.

Mr. Choi tends to buy 25-centimeter croaker heavy with roe for 250,000 won ($210) to 280,000 won per set of 10 from the local fisheries cooperative. He processes them into gulbi and sells them to department stores for 350,000 won to 380,000 won per set. Department stores sell them for about 550,000 won per set. The gulbi without roe sell for a little more than half that price.

Gulbi sales in Korea total 550 billion won a year, and the market is split 50-50 between domestic gulbi and Chinese gulbi. Two-thirds of the locally-made gulbi comes from Yeonggwang. Now, companies in Beopseong inlet are calling their product "Yeonggwang Beopseong gulbi" to emphasize that the inlet is where Yeonggwang gulbi was developed.

Traditional gulbi-making methods changed about 30 years ago when refrigerators became more widely-owned. Until the 1970s, most gulbi were made by drying croaker in the sea winds for two or three months, until they were very hard. But softer "water gulbi," dried for only a couple of days and then kept in the refrigerator, retained more flavor. Now, almost all the gulbi on the market are water gulbi.

by Kim Jun-hyun

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