Seeking the ‘perfect swarm’ of shad
“The smell of grilled gizzard shads can bring your daughter-in-law back,” goes the kitschy Korean saying.
The idea is that if the daughter-in-law has eloped with another man, she’ll have to return to her ex-husband’s hometown when the autumn delicacy is grilled to get the crispy bite she could not forget.
The September morning was still too early to spot anyone grilling the silvery animals when I reached the western coast of Seocheon, a fishing town famous for gizzard shad.
The town was getting ready for its annual gizzard shad festival, which kicks off tomorrow. The coastline was filled with placards and signs advertising restaurants to eat gizzard shad and guest houses with the best views during the festival.
In contrast to the quiet streets, the two harbors in town, Maryang and Hongwon, were bustling with fishermen setting out at dawn to catch the gizzard shads.
Park Jong-sul, 48, wore a black North Face windbreaker and black waterproof pants among the mob of busy men in rubber boots and overalls in Maryang Harbor.
He spotted the reporter he was waiting for: the only female around.
“Are you hopping in or not?” he barked. “We have to hurry and be ready for the favorable tide. It does not wait for us.”
Mr. Park, the captain of Geumseong (meaning Venus) the Seventh, is known as the best gizzard shad fisherman in town, according to Kim Jin-geun, a top county official in the fishing village.
The gizzard shad season lasts from late August to early November. During that time, Mr. Park can easily catch double the amount other fishing boats get in a day, Mr. Park’s crew said. Mr. Park said his record came two years ago, when he hauled in of eight tons of gizzard shads in a day ― bringing him 48 million won, or $50,000. He catches two tons per day on average, which is worth about 20 million won. Other boats are lucky to catch 500 kilograms in a day, Mr. Park’s crew said.
“It’s all about watching the surface of the water carefully,” he said. “You cast the net when you feel the school of gizzard shads swimming under your boat. You can smell them swarming when they are nearby.”
According to him, that was the only “special trick” that he’s used in the 35 years that he’s been trolling for gizzard shads.
Carrying Mr. Park’s 13 men (and the reporter and photographer), Geumseong the Seventh started slowly out to sea, followed by two smaller boats, the Fifth and the Sixth, which he also owns.
The menu: mackerel (which they had caught before) pan fried, then boiled down in a soup of soy sauce and hot peppers and baetbap, literally meaning sea rice. Baetbap gets its name because it’s eaten on the deck and the rice is rinsed with sea water before it’s cooked. The rice tasted saltier, indeed.
The habit began when drinking water was scarce, but the tradition continued anyway because, Mr. Park said, it “just tasted better that way.”
Seeing that I was looking fruitlessly for a place to throw away my leftovers, he took my tray and flung the food out to sea.
“Easy,” he said, winking.
For dessert, he passed around pears. But they weren’t sweet enough, so they were tossed overboard, too.
When I pointed out there was no toilet on board for the approximately five-hour voyage, he shrugged and pointed out to the water.
“You have the entire sea, what’s there to worry about?”
Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling well, though the baetbap had tasted good. No time for fidgeting, however.
Mr. Park yelled that the tide was coming in and the rest of the crew jumped to their feet, flinging their cigarettes and coffee overboard. The boats started to move forward again. Looking out, we saw about 20 other boats doing the same.
According to Mr. Park, gizzard shads appear at the moment when the water suddenly becomes still during high tide. It was crucial to meet those few minutes or you have to wait for the next tide, he said.
“Get ready!” Mr. Park screamed over the roaring sound of the engine and the waves that lapped against the boat. His crew scrambled on deck. Some boats were already casting their nets, but Mr. Park told his crew to stand still as he sped the boat around in circles watching the water closely. He was looking for the biggest swarm.
“Now!” he yelled, and the crew let go of the net all at once. It stretched several hundred yards into the sea.
After an hour, he announced on his walkie-talkie that they had caught one ton of gizzard shads. Other boats managed to get only a few hundred kilograms, but he was upset. The net had ripped during the tussle as the 13 men tried to drag in the heavy load of fish into the boat and “half the catch slipped away.”
At the port, trucks from different regions were waiting to buy the gizzard fish.
One of them was Mr. Park’s client Park Seong-beom (no relation), the chef and the owner of Noeul Hoe, a sushi restaurant.
“Autumn is the best season for the gizzard shads because that’s when these fish grow three times fatter,” Mr. Park the chef said.
He suggested we pick the ones that are no less than 5 inches because the big ones tend to be tasteless and the meat easily crumbles when grilled.
“So the best ones are the stout ones,” he pointed out.
Most popular Korean gizzard shad dishes are barbecued on the grill, tossed in sweet, sour and spicy salads or eaten as plain sushi.
Although many gizzard shad lovers go for the sushi, this is the only time of the year that the fish is fat enough to make into a delicacy.
As for the salad, the gizzard shads are chopped into a mix of hashed garlic, chopped spinach, cucumbers, carrots, sesame leaves and red pepper paste.
“It’s perfect with soju,” Mr. Park said.
The grilled gizzards shads are also popular. Sprinkled with raw salt, they are slowly roasted over a briquette fire, making the fish greasy from its natural unsaturated fat.
“Gizzard shads have plenty of DHA and EPA, helping your children to study harder, and they have taurine, a compound also found in fungi and plants, that breaks down your body fat,” said Chung Jeong-ho, a director of the town’s upcoming gizzard shad festival. “It also helps clean out the intestines. Actually there’s nothing in the body that this silver fish is not good for.”
It’s gizzard shad festival time ― here’s where to go
Several harbors across the southern part of the country are holding gizzard shad festivals of their own throughout this season. They are selling the fish for a lower price, holding cooking sessions for visitors and hosting outdoor shows and various competitions for singing and dancing.
Starting this weekend, Mangdeok Estuary (061-797-2731), in the southernmost part of Gwangyang, is holding its gizzard shad fest. Aside from the sessions on how to make gizzard sushi and gizzard bibimbab, a Korean specialty of rice and vegetables spiced up with red bean paste, there will be orchestras playing by the sea and illustrating how the fishermen in the olden days caught the gizzard shad while sailing on a wooden boat.
Masan Fish Market (055-600-4332), on the southeastern coast, opened its gizzard shad festival on Aug. 31. It will run throughout this month. Organizers boast the “most beautiful and the biggest” harbor in the country. Fireworks, performances by traditional percussion bands and beauty pageants are part of the various events they have planned.
At Hongwon Harbor, (041-950-4224), the Seocheon Gizzard Shad Festival goes on from this Saturday through Sept. 26. Organizers say the gizzard shads from their harbor are “just tastier.”
In most restaurants near the harbor, you can get a 2,000 won ($2) discount on all gizzard shad dishes, meaning gizzard sushi normally sold for 30,000 won for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) is provided at 28,000 won.
by Lee Min-a