I remember my first long-distance bike trip in Korea. It was the Lunar New Year holiday in 2016 when the air was still cold and snow hasn’t melted on some of the bike trails. My friend and I rode our bikes from Daejeon to coastal city of Gunsan following about 140km of Geumgang (river) bike trail. The newly constructed bike-only path was well managed and goes through historic sites and attractions in cities such as Buyeo and Gongju. Towards the end of the trip, the path also led us through Ganggyeong, a small town famous for its fermented fish products.
On the afternoon of new year’s day, I led my family to streets of salted seafood in Ganggyeong which is not too far from our home in Daejeon. I wanted to share the stories from my bike trip and try some unique regional fermented seafood as well. In this small town, there are streets lined with shops selling all kinds of salted fish. Each place has their own recipe so flavour and saltiness slightly differ from each other. But nonetheless, Korean-style salted seafood has strong flavor and often extremely salty and spicy as they were meant to be served with rice.
Mom wanted to buy some salted shrimp–they are often used in cooking and are one of the major ingredient in kimchi. I used to just eat them as a side dish with white rice. Salted shrimp come in different sizes but the larger ones with a few drops of sesame oil and some sesame seeds are good enough to empty a bowl of rice. The owner of the shop led us to the back where they stole the containers of different salted shrimps in which they are being fermented under certain temperature. He explained that how some of the drums are well worth over 10 million Korean won. The cave of salted shrimps was actually more of a gold mine.
Because of its location by the river, Ganggyeong became the hub of agricultural and marine products ever since liberation from Japanese colonization in 1945. During the busy time of spring, about hundred sailing vessels were in and out of Ganggyeong market all the way from coast of Gunsan. The seafood transported from these ships were immediately put on auction and leftovers were salted and kept in dirt caves for storage. This is how the town became famous for fermented seafood. Now, Ganggyeong is responsible for about 60% of South Korea’s fermented seafood supply.
At salted fish shops, customers are invited to try the seafood on display so if you’re ambitious enough then I say give it a try. My all-time favourite is fermented roe of Alaska pollack aka myeongran-jeot(명란젓). We also came across a rather rare product made of sea squirts, which is often served fresh as a side when you order sashimi at Korean seafood restaurants. I shall now try these with some freshly steamed rice along with local makgeolli. Happy New Year!