Dirty, rude and delicious: Galchi Jorim
Galchi Golmok is crowded with more than two dozen small eateries ― each of which claims to be the originator of the fish dish, braised in spicy sauce. In reality, they were joints selling all sorts of popular home-cooked dishes for neighboring merchants.
Local merchants first spread rumors of the memorable tastes, savored at the wee hours that seemed almost like a dream. Gourmands around town eventually sought out the dish. In July 2001, a nationally televised program introduced a restaurant there called Huirak, and a tourist attraction was born.
Hairtail fish is most sought after in the winter ― its high season, when the fish is freshest. But the plump, silvery slab of fish is served throughout the year salted and grilled or even raw for epicures.
Galchi-jorim, or hairtail fish braised in spicy sauce, is based on a popular Korean recipe that is used with just about any fish.
Outside Korea, not a lot is known about this long and silvery fish that shines like a warrior’s sword. Also known as cutlassfish or bladefish, adult hairtail fish typically grow to be over 30 centimeters (12 inches) in Korean waters, or as long as 1.5 meters near Australia. In Asia, about 60 percent of commercially caught hairtail is consumed in China. Korea has the region’s second-biggest catch.
The secret of Huirak’s success, emphasized Mr. and Mrs. Mun, is having the best ingredients. Natives of Jeolla province, the couple goes down to the southern port of Mokpo to arrange contract shipments for months’ worth of hairtail in advance.
“The meokgalchi [black eelpout, a type of hairtail] caught in Mokpo is far superior to eungalchi [silver hairtail] from Jeju Island,” says Mrs. Mun. The couple also processes red chili pepper flakes themselves, using select Korean chilies.
Because of the growing shortage of hairtail and price hikes, sellers in the alley compete for better and more consistent suppliers of the fish from the south of Korea. Some sellers even began using Chinese imports.
By 1996, the street had become widely known as Galchi Golmok. Most galchi eateries deliberately use cheap pots, battered and beaten, in an attempt to simulate the history of the original Huirak eatery. All the restaurants have the same prices: a pot of galchi-jorim is 5,000 won ($5). And they all share one small toilet in the area.
The main customers these days are visitors to the market, as well as Japanese tourists who come in holding a guidebook.
What adds to the taste of the dish is the unique atmosphere that immediately takes visitors back to the Korea of decades ago. Once inside Galchi Golmok, which reeks of a wet fishy smell, loud middle-aged women wearing pink rubber gloves up to their elbows squat on the ground washing chopped fish in buckets and vats.
Passing visitors are treated like trespassers to their kitchens, and having witnessed the unsanitary treatment of the fish, one might think twice about eating it ― but boiled on an enormous flame, it is most definitely a sterilized, delicious treat.
How to cook spicy hairtail at home
1 whole hairtail
1/2 medium-sized radish cut into large squares.
2 cups (500 ml) vegetable or fish stock or water
4 tbsp. soy sauce
3 tbsp. red chili flakes
1 tbsp. chopped garlic
1 tbsp. rice wine (optional)
1 tbsp. roasted sesame seeds (optional)
dash of black pepper (optional)
1/2 chopped shallot
1. Wash the fish in running water (defrost first if the fish is frozen).
2. Chop off the head and tail. Cut into 4-5 pieces.
3. In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, rice wine, chili and garlic.
4. In a pot, boil the radish in the stock over a medium fire for 7 minutes.
5. Place the fish on top of the radish, add the sauce and boil on high fire for 10 minutes.
6. Add the shallot (and sesame seeds and pepper) on top and simmer for 2 minutes. Serve immediately.
How to get there
By subway: Get off at Hoehyeon station, line No. 4, exit 5. Walk straight for 250 meters before making a left turn towards Alpha Mungu (a stationery store). Then turn right to enter Galchi Golmok.
By taxi: Get off in front of Namdaemun Geukjang (theater) at the market’s gate 2. Go straight and turn right at the first intersection. Enter a narrow alley between a shopping bag vendor and the Partypia store.
Rows of battered nickel pots on gas burners bubble with blood-red sauce in a virtual kitchen-on-the-alley. Across the narrow walkway, Mun Ui-sik, 51, the owner, is busy preparing more hairtail for cooking.
Mr. Mun is the second owner of this popular eatery. His younger sister worked for the founder, a family friend, in the mid-1980s, and he soon took over the business with his wife, No Gyeong-sun, 43. The owners may have changed but everything else has remained the same ― and in some ways, has been stuck in time.
Huirak has three small floors, and the ceilings get lower the higher one goes. The tiny third floor is an attic with just two tables.
We at the IHT-JoongAng Daily were led up a staircase so narrow and steep that an acrobatic sense of balance was required. We stooped, and then sat. On one wall hung a 1996 restaurant review on a browned newspaper.
During busy hours, diners are told to share tables with strangers. There’s no written menu, and we were bluntly asked ― “What do you want?” ― which the waitress promptly answered herself ― “Galchi-jorim?”
When we asked if they served anything else, the young woman with a ruddy face retorted that we only had two other choices: gyeran-jjim (poached egg) and doenjang-jjigae (bean paste stew). When we asked for something to drink, she almost threw us out. “We’ve got Chamiseul only, and you get no cups. Use the paper cups there!” she said briskly and left.
A few minutes later, she returned with battered and blackened pots of fish soup, eggs (4,000 won or $4) and a bottle of Chamiseul soju (3,000 won). The side dishes, obviously old and covered with transparent plastic wrap, looked utterly unappetizing.
However, the creamy white meat that emerged from the hairtail fish was tender, moist and sweet. The delightfully contrasting tastes ― mild, sweet and spicy ― alternated in the mouth, making us crave more. Earthy radish chunks were mixed in with the soup. Two slabs of fish, a big chunk of radish and the dark, subtly sparkling sauce were enough to go with a bowl of steamed rice.
A boiling pot of poached eggs, deliberately burned for a toasty flavor, was a reasonably good neutralizer for the spicy fish.
Dining over bittersweet soju in paper cups, scooping steamed rice from military-issue bowls and diligently digging for precious meat buried in the battered pot, we felt thankful to be living in this modern age ― where we don’t have to eat like this everyday. We also felt like we had to eat fast and leave quick, as there might be hungry people outside waiting to be fed.
Upon standing up, one of us hit his head on the ceiling and nearly fell down the stairs. But with fish soup like that, who can complain?
Along with most diners in the alley, Wangseong Sikdang opened in 1988 as a baekbanjip, a casual diner that sells an array of side dishes with rice. The owner, Mun Hye-sun, 57, who used to sell clothes in the market, originally specialized in gamjatang (spicy potato stew) and sundubu (pureed tofu) ― the old favorites of the alley.
The restaurant still sells a dozen different dishes, from doenjang-jjigae to jeyuk-bokkeum (stir-fried spicy pork) to sundubu, but 90 percent of walk-in customers are looking for galchi-jorim.
Her 31-year-old son, Jun Ji-hun, serves on the floor, and helps to prepare about 100 pots a day. As hairtail soup was introduced in Japanese tour guidebooks, Ms. Mun receives about two to three groups of Japanese tourists everyday.
Wangseong, which means “thriving” in Korean, is easier to find and is definitely cleaner than Huirak. Service is also friendly, and side dishes are superior in quality and quantity.
The braised hairtail fish, which is slightly bland compared to Huirak, is similarly buried in a boiling pool of reddish brown sauce spiked with garlic, green onion and red chili pepper. The poached egg, recommended as a neutralizer, is also similar in appearance and taste, but this one comes with a lot of MSG.
Oddly enough, despite being cleaner and friendlier our visit to this eatery wasn’t as memorable as the dirtier and unfriendly Huirak.
We thought Wangseong was not so different from a lot of cheap eateries scattered around the country. Being a product of modern times, we actually missed the bad attitude of Korea’s poor old days.
by Ines Cho
Reporting by interns Jin Hyun-ju, Kong Jun-wan, Lee Su-jin and Brett Stewart