From muddy origins, a good country stewAutumn: That time of the year when men’s minds turn to? eating mudfish.
Yes, now that the sweltering season is behind us, the time has come for the male of the species to resurrect his vigor with that well-known folkloric remedy for loss of male potency: chueotang, or, as it reads in Chinese characters, “autumn mudfish stew.”
In the merry days of yore, when the harvest had been gathered, the little eel-like fish (also known as loach) that dwelt in the mud of the paddies were hunted down and turned into a stew that was rich in vitamin A, calcium and protein.
So well known is this delicacy that it even has a proverb: If you hear someone say “He is like a mudfish,” it means he dirties every bit of water he comes into contact with ― i.e., he is corrupt. The stew is particularly famous in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces, as well as in the deep south.
It is also available, of course, in the metropolis. One of the most famed chueotang houses is located south of the river where it has stood since 1977; by Gangnam standards, Wonju Chueotang virtually qualifies as a historic building.
Outside is a tank full of bewhiskered catfish, and a couple of buckets of squirming mudfish. Inside, the interior is strictly utilitarian: white walls, tables with drum-like metal steamers set atop them and, for decor, a few color posters of the fare. The predominant customers are ajeossi: guttural older gents in ill-fitting suits, sporting either glossy hairpieces or extremely well-dyed locks. Keeping watch over them are a full complement of ajumma, clucking cheerfully away and bustling hither and yon.
The menu offers catfish bulgogi, but the main attractions are chueotang and chueotwigim, or deep-fried mudfish. The chueotang can be ordered either in the southern style (pureed) or northern style (whole fish). We opt for the former (gilaseo chueotang: 10,000 won) and for a platter of deep-fried mudfish (mikuraji twigim; 10,000 won).
First come the inevitable side dishes. A plate of cabbage kimchi, another of spring onion kimchi in a particularly rich red sauce, turnip and pickled pepper in water, and anchovies in sesame oil. Then come the deep-fried fish. These are little fellows, lightly coated in a thin batter. They are crispy ― from both the batter and the bones ― and fresh-tasting. (They should be: The poor little chaps were just fished out of the bucket). They are also the closest thing I have eaten in Korea to deep-fried whitebait, though a little larger, and with darker flesh. As such, they are well-suited to the Western taste. For dip, there is a small bowl of soy sauce with chopped onions. (Note to self: On your next visit, bring along some salt and vinegar.) Very enjoyable.
Then the piece de resistance arrives: the chueotang. This is placed in a bowl on the steamer and heated at the table. At the conclusion of this preparation, a handful of veggies are slung in, black pepper and assorted spices are poured in from ancient, blackened tins set on every table, and ― voila! ― dinner is served.
What we have here is an earthy-looking stew, brownish red in color. In texture, it is something like a Provencal soup de poisson: thick and grainy from the mulched-up fish. Taste-wise, though, it is a very different beast indeed. The spices are not overly searing, but it is strong stuff nonetheless.
The pureed fish are very much in evidence, and despite the strong application of pepper and spice, their taste is detectable. Such is the strength of flavor in this stew, I would venture to suggest that this is not for everyone, but is certainly something that should be sampled at least once.
To drink, there is a wide selection of fine Bordeaux and some Crimean red champagnes. Fooled you ― it’s the usual lagers and sojus. Service is pleasant, quick and to the point.
Verdict: Good ole country-style grub ― and this is the season to try it. But don’t take my word for it; any restaurant in Seoul that has survived this long has got to have something going for it, and here, it sure ain’t the decor.
English: None spoken, none on the menu.
Location: In the alley opposite Kyobo Book Centre in Gangnam.
Subway: None close by.
Hours: 9 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Dress: Come as you are. Hairpieces optional.
by Andrew Salmon