Essential Ingredients Pollack: A Versatile Fish

Pollack, a winter fish, is considered to be a health food as it has more protein and less fat than blue-backed fish. In Korea, it is even found on tables for traditional ceremonial occasions – a food with auspicious meaning.

If there’s one fish every Korean knows, it has to be myeongtae, or fresh pollack. The origin of this name can be found in “Writings under Forest” (Imha pilgi), a vast collection of essays written by the late Joseon scholar Yi Yu-won (1814-1888) and published in 1871.

The story goes that there was a fisherman with the family name Tae who lived in Myeongcheon, Hamgyeong Province, in present-day North Korea. One day, he caught a fish and offered it to provincial governor.

The governor enjoyed the fish and asked what type it was, but nobody knew its name. He was simply told that it was caught by someone with the family name Tae from Myeongcheon. The governor said, “A fish caught by Tae from Myeongcheon. We’ll call it myeongtae.” That’s how the name was supposedly created. This is likely an apocryphal story rather than the real origin of the name. But from this anecdote in Yi Yu-won’s book, it’s evident that pollack was a common fish at the time.

He wrote, “Min Jeong-jung foretold that 300 years later, this fish would be much more prized than it was in his days, and it seems this is true. When I went to Wonsan, I saw the fish piled by the O River like stacks of firewood, so high that I could not count them.”

When Min Jeong-jung made this prediction about pollack in the 17th century, it seems the fish was not yet particularly appreciated as food. In “Diaries of the Royal Secretariat” (Seungjeongwon ilgi), pollack appears in an entry from 1652 regarding a problem where pollack roe was mixed with cod roe in a tribute offering to King Hyojong from Gangwon Province. However, three centuries later, pollack was a popular fish eaten throughout the country. Easily caught, it also became a common ingredient in preparing the table for various rituals across all social classes.

Pollack is dried outdoors during the winter, frozen and thawed more than 20 times, to become hwangtae. Drying sites are found in mountainous areas of Gangwon Province near the east coast, such as Daegwallyeong and Jinburyeong passes and Pyeongchang. © imagetoday

Hwangtae, torn into pieces lengthwise, can be used to make soup or side dishes. Slightly roasted over a fire, it also makes a popular snack with beer. © gettyimages

Pollack isn’t only an important fish in Korea. As of 2018, it was the second most popular fish species caught in the world and is eaten more than any other kind, making it a crucial food source.

Drying Methods
Before modern refrigeration was introduced, pollack was mainly bought and sold dried, except in winter. Depending on the level of dryness, the fish had several different names, such as kodari, jjaktae, bugeo, hwangtae and meoktae. Kodari is half-dried on skewers with the viscera and gills removed; jjaktae is salted and dried, very chewy with a salty taste; bugeo was just another name for myeong-tae in the past, but now refers to pollack dried at the seashore by the sea wind and sun for a short time.

Hwangtae, by contrast, is dried through a process of repeated freezing and thawing over several months then slowly matured for one year. The water content in the fish evaporates as it freezes during the night and thaws the next day, forming many pores in the flesh, which develops a spongy texture. Although bugeo has a higher moisture content than hwangtae, the latter is less tough and easier to chew thanks to its porous structure. Additionally, the climate of the highlands, characterized by low humidity and lots of wind, means the moisture in the flesh departs easily, making the drying process faster without hardening the fish. The flesh remains soft and is easily torn along the grain.

In the process of drying and maturing, the fat and amino acid in the fish turn a golden color, the reason for the name hwangtae (hwang means “yellow”). If the weather is too cold and the fish remains white, it’s called baektae (baek meaning “white”), and if the weather is warm and the fish turns dark, it’s called meoktae (meok meaning “dark” or “black”). Hwangtae dried in Daegwallyeong mountain pass near the east coast is particularly famous and the drying sites there, filled with snow-covered racks of pollack, attract photographers from around the country.

The ways in which this fish is eaten are as varied as its names. Hwangtae and bugeo lightly roasted over a fire make a good snack with alcoholic drinks. Or they can be shredded and soaked in water until soft, then mixed with red pepper paste sauce or plain soy sauce for a side dish eaten with rice. Hwangtae can be cut into big pieces and boiled down with onion, spring onion, red peppers, soybean sprouts, tofu and various condiments for a spicy and savory braised dish. This dish also works with kodari or bugeo, which are less expensive than hwangtae. Another popular pollack dish is roasted hwangtae, made by first soaking the dried fish in water then covering it with a sauce made of red pepper paste and other condiments. The taste makes you naturally crave a drink.

Dried pollack soup is a typical hangover cure. Stir-frying thin pieces of bugeo with square-cut radish and a few drops of sesame oil then boiling the ingredients in water will yield a whitish soup. © gettyimages

Bugeo and hwangtae can both be used to make side dishes by shredding and soaking the dried fish until tender and then mixing them with a sauce made of red pepper paste. © gettyimages

Salt-preserved pollack roe is an expensive food ingredient. The roe is usually mixed with sesame oil and eaten with hot rice. © PIXTA

Eaten in Various Ways
Although hwangtae and bugeo are popular as an accompaniment for liquor, they are also used as a hangover cure. Stir-fry hwangtae pieces with thin, square-cut pieces of radish and a few drops of sesame or perilla oil, then add water and boil the mixture to make a whitish soup. Some tofu and stirred egg can be added at the end. Eating this soup with rice will bring up a sweat and make you feel better after a night of heavy drinking.

It is said that no part of the pollack is wasted. The skin of bugeo is deep-fried on its own or stir-fried with various condiments, whereas the gills, tripe and eggs are salted down. Salt-preserved pollack roe, called myeongnan in Korea, was introduced to Japan where it’s called mentaiko, literally “myeongtae eggs.” Pollack roe is used in various dishes in Japan, such as pasta, rice balls and baguette sandwiches.

The center of pollack roe production in Korea is Busan, where several companies are engaged in research to develop new dishes. Today, pollack roe is made less salty than in the past, but the old, saltier variety is still sought out. These days, pollack roe is also consumed in new ways through new products, such as dried seaweed covered with pollack roe, scorched rice chips covered with pollack roe, or even pollack roe squeezed from a tube.

But most Koreans would still choose myeongtaetang (fresh pollack stew) as their favorite dish. As you savor the fresh white meat that breaks down in the mouth layer upon layer, one spoonful after another, a bowl of rice very quickly disappears. Living in the sea, fish don’t have to use their strength resisting gravity, unlike animals on land. This is why fish are less tough.

Fish that live in deep seas, such as pollack and cod, have more protein and less fat than blue-backed fish. The muscle fibers are short and arranged into myotomes, units of thin flakes. According to 2019 research by the National University of Singapore, the V-pattern in fish muscles is due to the environment. Simply put, the pattern is made by the physical friction and stress of swimming in the sea.

Pollack isn’t only an important fish in Korea. As of 2018, it was the second most popular fish species caught in the world and is eaten more than any other kind, making it a crucial food source. Since restrictions were placed on cod fishing due to the danger of extinction, pollack has been increasingly sought after as a replacement. It is also often used to make surimi, processed fish paste. As of yet, pollack is still a sustainable resource in the fishing industry.

Specialty from the East Sea
Unfortunately, however, the fish have disappeared from Korea’s coastal waters. This means that nearly all pollack products sold in Korea, whether fresh, dried or roe, are imported. Rising sea temperatures caused by global warming and the overfishing of immature pollack have made the fish scarce around the Korean peninsula.

Now, 400 years after the prediction of the Joseon literati Min Jeong-jung, pollack in Korea is not only prized but rare. The good news is that about 21,000 pollack were caught in 2018. Efforts to protect the fish and implement fishing restrictions are improving the situation little by little. Though it’s no longer possible to see this fish piled up high like stacks of firewood, hopefully fresh myeongtae caught in Korea’s East Sea will soon be seen on the dinner table once more. 

Jeong Jae-hoon Pharmacist and Food Writer
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