When contemplating what way I should prepare seafood my mind always leaps to memories of Korean food—bubbling jjigae impossible to consume without tearing up, spicy sauted squid eaten over rice for breakfast, fish cakes sold by teasing street vendors, and exquisitely fresh octopus still wriggling and clinging to my throat while I swallow. However, in the Midwest it is nearly impossible to find anything but a pale imitation of the delicious Korean food I fell in love with in Seoul, unless you prepare it yourself that is or are fortunate enough to know an indulgent ahjumma. So in a fit of nostalgia—and the demands of a deprived palate—I decided to tackle making maeuntang (spicy fish stew) over the weekend.
One of my favorite aspects of Korean cooking is plethora of vegetables found in the dishes, as well as the predilection for incorporating meat or seafood cuts often ignored in American cuisine. The use of bones and the fish head in this soup infuse the soup with oodles of nutrients and a delicious flavor. Another appealing trait of many Korean dishes is how simple and swift the dish prep and cooking time often are despite extensive ingredient lists, making them ideal for pulling together swiftly after long work days. All the ingredients for this dish should be easy to locate at a local Asian grocery.
Prep Time: 20 minutes. Cooking Time: 30 minutes.
- 1 whole fish (cod or snapper is preferable)
- 1 1/2 cups Korean radish (daikon can also be used)
- 1 block firm tofu
- 1 bunch of edible chrysanthemum leaves (ssukgat or shungiku)
- 1 bunch green onions
- 1-2 handfuls of bean sprouts
- 2 tbsp gochujang
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 4 shiitake mushrooms
- 1 small bunch enoki mushrooms
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp soju or cooking wine
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp ginger root
- 6-8 cups water
- 1 sheet of kelp (optional)
Using really fresh fish is key to this dish, maeuntang is actually often prepared in Korea alongside sashimi orders—creating another dish out of the fish pieces left over from sashimi preparation. If fresh whole fish are not easily attainable where you live then fish fillets can be easily substituted. However, a whole fish is preferable since the head and bones give the soup’s broth its wonderful taste.
Ascertaining the freshness of prospective fish at your local fishmonger or market can seem slightly daunting, but there are a handful of easily recognizable indicators. Firstly, check the gills, they should be a deep red colour, if they have already changed to a dull rusty shade then the fish is spoiled. Another clear sign of freshness is bright clear eyes—older fish tend to have cloudy eyes. Also look for firm resilient flesh and a distinct lack of a fishy reek.
Scale the fish (if necessary), wash it thoroughly in cold water, and remove the fins—kitchen shears are ideal for this task. Then cut it into several large chunks, reserving the head.
Scrub the radish and slice it thinly. Cut the ends off of the enoki mushrooms and then separate them. Gently wipe off any dirt on the shiitake mushrooms with damp paper towel and then thickly slice them.
Wash the chrysanthemum leaves and trim them into 6-7 inch long pieces, discarding the thicker portions of the central stalk. Rinse the bean sprouts and pat them dry. Peel the garlic cloves and ginger and chop them finely. Wash the green onions and slice them into ½ inch segments.
First prepare the stock by adding the radish slices, shiitake mushrooms, and kelp to the water and then simmering for 15-20 minutes. Note: if you aren’t keen on the idea of serving a finished dish with a fish head floating in it now is also a good time to add in the fish head. After 15-20 minutes discard the kelp (and fish head if added earlier) and skim off the broth.
Add the gochujjang, pepper flakes, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and fish to the pot and bring to a boil. Simmer until the fish is completely cooked, 15 minutes or so. Then add the green onions, bean sprouts, tofu, and chrysanthemum leaves and cook for 2-3 minutes longer till the tofu is warmed and the vegetables are lightly cooked. Serve it alongside hot rice.
A delightful bonus to Korean soups is that in addition to providing a vibrant, healthy combination of vegetables and protein, they also keep quite well and reheat easily. So I love making them on the weekend and indulging in the leftovers throughout the week. You can also vary the components of maeuntang extensively to suit your preferences or whatever fresh produce you might have on hand that week. Common additions to the soup tend to be zucchini, fresh chilis, clams, shrimp, and water dropwart.