Two months ago, I went to Jeju Island for the annual Fulbright conference to present my research. I stayed a few extra days after the conference to explore the island. Which, of course, means trying different foods as well!
For our first meal after the conference, we decided to stop at a restaurant that specializes in the fish known as 갈치 (kalchi) in Korean, which literally translates to sword fish, but is not the same type of sword fish with the long nose that is more common in restaurant menus in the US. The official name of this fish is the largehead hairtail, and it is a small and long fish shaped like a sword, hence the name in Korean. This fish is a speciality of Jeju Island and this restaurant (which I unfortunately forgot the name of and I didn’t take photographs either of the name of the restaurant!!!) is located in Seogwipo, which is where we stayed.
We had just walked an incredibly long distance, following one of the beautiful Blue Pony trails (officially they are the Jeju Olle trails, but the mascot is a blue pony), which is also the same name of our fabulous AirBnB! The owners, a lovely couple, had walked every single trail, which traverses the entire island and its coasts and their love of walking gave birth to the idea of opening a guesthouse named after what brought them to Jeju Island in the first place. We actually walked from the Blue Pony Guesthouse to the KAL Seogwipo Hotel and were pretty much starving by the time we were ready to eat dinner.
We figured since we had essentially been receiving free food from the conference and since we were so hungry, we decided to splurge on the four-course kalchi meal, which came with kalchi prepared 4 different ways: raw, in soup, stewed, and grilled. This seems like a lot of food to commit too in case we didn’t like the fish, but it turned out to be a really great meal!
First up was raw kalchi (갈치회). I normally don’t like Korean-style sashimi because usually the fish tastes too frozen (as if it was just taken out of the freezer) or the flesh is too firm and chewy. (I generally prefer raw fish that tastes as if it almost melts in my mouth like butter…) While the kalchi was still chewier than I would prefer, the fish definitely tasted extremely fresh and dipping it into the vinegared gochujang (초고추장) made for a perfectly suitable bite.
Shortly after the sashimi arrived, we received the second course: stewed kalchi (갈치조림). The spicy sauce was perfect and the fish was so delicate. Despite thinking that the small long fish would be oily like mackerel, the flesh is more similar to a white fish – meaty and surprisingly substantial. And it also tastes just as good cooked as it does raw!
Third course was kalchi soup (갈치국). This is a traditional Jeju dish and the fish is boiled with some green vegetables and pumpkin (단호박). Compared to the 조림 (stewed dish), it was very bland, so we ended up not appreciating it as much. I would have preferred to have this dish come out second because then we would have eaten a lot more of it. The stewed kalchi and then the next course ended up completing stealing the soup’s thunder sadly…
This is the grilled kalchi (갈치구이). This was everything I could have ever wanted in a fish dish – salty (the kind of salty that is addictive so you go back for bite after bite), crispy (just look at that skin!), and meaty (the white flesh of the fish was just so good). Each bite was perfect and we unanimously agreed that this was the best of the four courses. Simple and delicious, this is fish and kalchi at its best.
I would definitely recommend giving kalchi a try; my partner’s mom in Seoul cooks the fish quite regularly as well! This fish tastes good in so many different preparations as well – raw, stewed, boiled, and grilled – so there is something for everyone! Hopefully I’ll be able to find this restaurant again!