Last night, on my way home from school, I noticed the smelt van pulled up on the side of the busy cross road which I use several times a day. Every few months this small van appears and it’s always noticeable, perhaps more so for the waygukin (foreigner) because of its strangeness. Patches of snow and ice, from the recent nuclear winter, lay on the sidewalk and the air had an invigorating nip. From the smelt van interior steam, illuminated by the little bright lights around the van, intermittently billow out into the evening air, wafted away by puffs of chilly wind. On the back of the van sits an enormous aquarium on which a couple of small lights focus and the light, refracted from the furthest glass panel, makes it appear as if you are looking horizontally into a vast expanse of blue water in which a thousand small silver fish frantically swim like slivers of glass.
Koreans call them bing-oh (빙어) and they one of the less common streets foods whose western name, smelts, has a rather ironic foreboding. Smelts are the name for a family (Osmeridae) of fish (probably the hypomesus japonicus) which inhabit the water between Korea and Japan and which swim in large shoals. Various species of smelt exist both in the major seas, oceans and in freshwater but the Korean specie is one of the smallest, only a few centimeters long. Stood watching them is mesmerizing and it’s easy to see the therapeutic use aquariums have as a means of inducing relaxation and lowering blood pressure; a couple of seats in front of the tank would surely attract customers.
However, the hypnotic lull into which you might be drawn is shattered when a large sieve suddenly invades the watery expanse and scoops up a few hundred unfortunate smelt, quickly folds them in batter before immersing their twisting bodies in the scorching oil of the deep fat fryer in which they instantly expire amidst spitting fat and a sigh of steam. From a vibrant alive to a crispy, and rather tasty, cooked and dead, in less than two minutes.
The smelt van is a holocaust on wheels and it doesn’t do to ponder too long on how a fish might perceive the various processes practiced. Being tossed in batter and chucked in the fryer is a fairly horrible way to go. However, the smell of fried fish quickly rescues one from contemplation and their tasty crunch has the capacity to banish both empathy and sympathy. You have to eat tempura at the cooking source because by the time you get home the batter is cold and soggy but eating those delicious little morsels under the van’s canopy reminds me of how little respect we have for fish. Imagine a van with a small chicken pen perched on its tail, the chickens contentedly pecking away at grains of corn strewn over the pen’s grass floor. And then, a hand grabs a chicken, chops off its head and expertly plucks the feathers and while still in the throes of death, drags it through some batter before committing it to the fryer. No tantalizing aromas could banish my horror nor the tastiest, succulent flesh extinguish guilt. With warm blooded animals, even a stupid chicken, the point and location of death and the culinary process have to be clearly separated. Many of us are so mortified by warm blooded death that we can’t even buy the flesh in the same location in which it was killed and in the English language have to partition the meat for the animal; personally, ‘pork’ is infinitely more palatable than ‘pig’ and a lot less likely to incur pangs of guilt. At least Koreans appear less troubled by canivourism when they are able to suck on a pork bone in a restaurant in which the walls or menu are adorned with photos, paintings or other images of piggies, in some cases bizarrely anthropomorhphised.
But I can quite easily enjoy a mouthful of bing-oh while watching them swimming about and romaticise that puff of steam which is lifted into the city’s air as each batch is annihilated. Few, if any animal right exist for the bing-oh or indeed most other types of fish and able to watch the entire process from fish to food, with no remorse, I am aware of not only how callous I am, but how smelted in the deep fat fryer, death could hardly taste fresher!
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.