The city of Masan is located in southern coast of Gyeongsang province. It is about one-hour drive away from Busan. The former provincial capital is more famous for birthplace of steamed monkfish or agu-jjim(아구찜), a regional comfort food that became national favourite. Agu, or monkfish, had originally been treated as scrap fish and was often discarded when they were accidentally caught in the net. The main reason was that the fish looked inedible–it was just too ugly. So it has only been 40 years or so since agu was cooked and served on table. And it all began in no other place but Masan.
The story behind the creation of agu-jjim is this:
One day, a fisherman walked into a tavern in Odong-dong, Masan, and asked the owner lady to cook his catch. However, the old lady saw the hideousness of monkfish’s appearance and threw it away. A month later, the lady had to serve surprise guests and was short on ingredients. She found the discarded fish–frozen and thawed repeatedly–in the corner of the kitchen and decided to marinate then steam it with veggie. The guests fell in love with the dish and that’s how steamed monkfish became famous.
The story might be just a fun tale but the truth is that in Masan they do use dried monkfish instead of fresh ones. The fish was left out to dry in winter air and naturally they froze then thawed over time. The result is the chewy flesh that goes well with crunchy soybean sprouts.
We also ordered clear monkfish soup and this I fell in love with. One of the best hangover soups I have ever had. I almost felt sorry that I didn’t get myself wasted the night before. They use fresh fish in this one and I enjoyed the softness of fish flesh in contrast to dried fish used in steamed dish.
The place we went claimed that they are the restaurant that appears in the story and the lady who works in the kitchen is the “inventor” of the dish. Believe it or not, but the food sure tasted great.