Seafood and salt mines
Mr. Kim was one of the 36 people who went to Hongseong county two weeks ago in order to prepare for the gimjang (winter kimchi) season. The area is known for storing its fermented seafood, or jeotgal in Korean, a necessary ingredient in kimchi, in caves. The county is thus betting that gimjang could be a tourist draw, and is offering a program on how to make the red-hot stuff during the gimjang season, usually late-November to mid-December, depending on the weather.
“Well, I can’t say that I really made kimchi,” he admitted, “because the ingredients were prepared and the only thing I did was putting the seasoned mixture into the Chinese cabbage. But even that wasn’t as easy as it looked, and ajummas (middle-aged women) around me helped me out.”
Kimchi may be Korea’s national dish, but since kimchi imported from China was found to contain lead, and parasite eggs were found in domestically-produced kimchi, people have begun to question the safety of their favorite food.
But it’s because of the scare that the county is expecting more people to join the program, said O Jae-seok, an official at the Culture and Tourism Division of the Hongseong County Office.
A shop named Seogine Togul Saeujeot (Seogi’s Fermented Cave Sprimp), specializing in fermented shrimp or saeujeot stored in caves (togul in Korean), is hosting the program. The shop pickled 50 Chinese cabbages the night before the event and julienned radishes and chopped garlic and ginger early the next morning.
The program was originally planned to start by having the participants mix the ingredients with red pepper flakes, fermented shrimp and anchovy sauce, but because no one brought aprons, Song Gyeong-hee, the owner of the shop, and two other residents had to mix the ingredients on their own. The participants just put on vinyl gloves, stuffed the ingredients into one head each of Chinese cabbage and then took it home.
“The temperature stays between 13 degrees to 15 degrees centigrade (55.4 to 59 Fahrenheit) and the humidity at 85 percent all year around, which is the best environment for storing salted seafood,” said Heo Nee, a member of one of the first families to use the caves. “Kimchi that used jeotgal which has been stored in a cave doesn’t mellow easily because the jeotgal was fermented in a steady temperature.”
The caves are artificial ― you can actually see grooves left on the ceiling by the tools used to make the caves. Similar to ant tunnels, one entrance can lead to many caves.
It’s no doubt because it was so difficult to dig the caves that the tunnels are low and narrow, about 1.6 meters high and 3 meters wide, so most people will have to stoop; the space is so narrow that two persons can barely make it in or out.
The jeotgal, usually shrimp, shellfish and oyster, must be stored in the cave for 45 days to a year.
“Because we don’t put any artificial ingredients in it, it’s saltier than jeotgal from other regions,” said Ms. Song, the owner of Seogine Togul Saeujeot. She ain’t kidding. I tried one little shrimp and had to gulp down three cups of water.
Gwangcheon Fermented Seafood Market, located in Gwangcheon village, Hongseong county, has grown dramatically over the past decade as the county’s fermented seafood came to dominate the kimchi industry.
“There were only three or four shops in the market, but the market has been growing fast since 1996, when Hongseong County started hosting the Jeotgal Festival every October. Now there’s about 50 shops in the market,” said Kim Jeong-soon, the owner of Gwangcheon Seafood Shop which has been in the market since 1968.
There are two businesses in Hongseong that use imported seafood to make jeotgal, but they sell their wares outside of the county.
Promising that the jeotgal in the village was 100-percent Korean, Mr. Heo gave some advice on how to tell an import from domestic: “An imported shrimp has a pink body.” Don’t get confused, however, by pink sauce, which could still have been made with Korean salted shrimp. “Also, the imported goods use rock salt, which doesn’t dissolve well,” he added. “If you see some salt that looks like sugar in it, you should assume it’s imported.”
The kinds of salted shrimp used depending on the month in which it was salted. The saeujeot made in the sixth month of the lunar calendar, or yukjeot, is considered to be of the best quality, costing 20,000 won ($19) to 30,000 won per kilogram. In comparison, ojeot, made in the fifth month of the lunar calendar, and chujeot, made in the ninth or tenth months, cost 5,000 won to 15,000 won per kilogram. Dongbaekha, made in the eleventh or twelfth month of lunar calendar, costs 15,000 won per kilogram and bomjeot, made in the third or fourth months when the shrimps’ shells are supposedly thickest, costs 5,000 won.
Those with years of kimchi experience can tell the difference.
“The jeotgal was really tasty, and I think that made the kimchi taste better,” said one old woman from Incheon who joined the kimchi-making program with her husband.
by Park Sung-ha
How to get to Hongseong from Seoul: Because it’s hard to get around in the county using public transportation, the best way to get there is to drive. Take Seohaean Expressway to the Hongseong exit, then take national road No. 29. Those who rely on public transportation should take a train at Yongsan station rather than taking a bus at Nambu Bus Terminal.
To join the making-kimchi tour, contact Webtour at 1588-8526, or the Hongseong Culture and Tourism Division at (041) 630-1362. The tour includes kimchi-making, a visit to caves filled with fermented seafood, and other activities in the county, like eating oysters near the Yellow Sea.