When I lived in Korea a few years ago, I visited some relatives I’d never met before and to celebrate the arrival of their distant English-speaking cousin they told me they’d be treating me to some raw fish. To me, “raw fish” is synonymous with “sashimi” so I expected to be eating big, fleshy pieces of salmon, tuna, kingfish, snapper and bass presented on a huge boat-shaped platter with pickled ginger and fresh wasabi. So when I was presented with a small styrofoam plate of greyish-white shreds of unidentified fish, slimy strips of sliced squid and other chopped bits of unknown sea creature, I was like… “What is this pathetic excuse for sashimi?!” and decided definitively that “Korean raw fish SUCKS.”
So when my friend who was visiting from Sydney suggested that we have lunch at Noryangjin Seafood Market, I was happy to take her for the cultural experience but I wasn’t really interested in what we’d be eating. I’m not that huge on seafood to begin with (I’ve only been the Sydney Fish Markets once in my whole life) but Korean seafood? Even more “Meh.” No big red cooked king prawns. No beer battered fish and chips. No crumbed callimari. Expectations were low.
Noryangjin Market is the biggest wholesale fish market in Seoul and is actually only a few subway stations away from my home. Seoul is not a coastal city, but it’s close enough to the ocean for people to trust the freshness of the seafood sold here.
Walking in from the footbridge that connects to the subway station, the view was impressive. A massive well-organised grid of individually-run vendors presenting their goods in red buckets and shallow glass fish tanks. Some stalls are more shell-fish focused, some are more fresh-fish focused, but they’re all pretty much selling the same thing. And on a Sunday morning, it was quite busy, but not in a crushing “GET ME OUT OF HERE I CAN’T BREATHE” kind of way.
The most fascinating thing about this market is that almost everything sold here is whole and still alive. Nothing is scaled, shelled or filleted – everything is as fresh as you can get, in that the fish still have breath in their gills. It’s almost like a really depressing, overcrowded aquarium.
The second most fascinating thing about the market is the variety! So many different things – fish, shellfish and molluscs I’d never seen or even heard of before!
Walking around I started to realise that Korea actually has its own, very distinct raw fish culture. The word for raw fish is “회” (Hweh) which some people translate to “sashimi,” but I think the more accurate definition is “Korean raw fish.” Sashimi and hweh are very different things. The essence of sashimi a distinguished sushi chef artfully slicing through high-grade fish with a diamond-sharp knife. The essence of Korean raw fish is a grumpy old lady squatting by a port, with bucketfuls of wriggling sea critters that she chops up roughly with a cleaver and sells to passers by.
Japanese sashimi says “This is the best that the ocean has to offer.” Korean raw fish says, “Hey ocean! We’ll take whatever you’ve got to give!” Perhaps it has something to do with Korea’s history of extreme poverty, but it’s amazing how the average Korean person will happily eat all kinds of ugly sea-dwelling organisms that I’m quite sure God did not intend for human consumption.
For example, let me present to you the “spoon worm”
This delightful creature is called “개불”/Gaebul in Korean and has a number of other nicknames thanks to its uncanny resemblance to….. well, a lot of things that you would never want to eat as food. I consider myself an adventurous eater but…. just, no. I don’t need to try this to know for sure that it tastes as bad as, or even worse than, it looks. But yes, people will actually pay money to eat this.
Moving on from the weird to the wonderful, the market is also full of high-class seafood that I couldn’t afford so just took photos of.
This MASSIVE king crab.
Big red lobster and a variety of other delicious looking shellfish.
The first thing we were set on trying, just for fun, was the world-famous live octopus or “sannakji.” Sannakji is often portrayed as one of the “weirdest” things Koreans eat, and a lot of people are grossed out by the idea of eating still-wriggling octopus and are paranoid that they’ll choke if the tentacle gets stuck in their throat. This misconception that sannakji is gross or dangerous may come from this famous scene from the movie Old Boy, which is definitely not the recommended method of consumption.
Sannakji is actually more popular amongst curious tourists than locals, but they’re all over the market. We bought one little octopus and the lady gave it to us in plastic bag… we were mainly concerned that it would die before we ate it which would defeat the purpose of the whole thing.
Then we went about trying to find some fish to eat raw, knowing absolutely nothing about what fish was what or what a reasonable price was. The vendors at the markets are pretty aggressive, especially once they see you’re a foreigner, and its a bit annoying but you can’t really blame them, they’re just hustling to make a living. We chose one at random and put ourselves at their mercy.
They recommended 광어/Gwang-uh (flounder) for sashimi and a small, fat blackfish to be steamed or stewed. All up, it was about 40,000 won which seemed okay for fresh seafood. We then witnessed the quick, bloody and brutal death of flounder, who was filleted and sliced up for us.
The system of buying/eating at the fish markets works like this: The vendors only sell and slice – if you want to sit down and eat your purchases straight away, you can pick one of the many restaurants on the outer edges of the market who will serve up your fresh seafood in any way you please. We were completely new to this, so we asked the live-octopus lady to recommend a restaurant, and she directed is to “Seoul Sikdang” in the basement.
The place was full of middle-aged people who looked like they knew what was up so we figured it was a good choice.
The restaurant makes you pay a small cover charge for sauces and greens, and then they prep and serve your raw fish. We paid a bit extra to have one of our fish served as Maeun-tang (“매운탕” – literally translates to “spicy stew”)
The flounder was very generous, despite being such a flat fish. So much better than the raw fish I remember from dinner with my relatives – it’s very chewy and just has a nice, clean flavour. I’d still prefer salmon, but this isn’t a bad substitute. You can eat it with in soy sauce and wasabi, chilli sauce, or wrapped in a lettuce leaf with special ssam-jang and fresh chopped green chilli and garlic.
Our live octopus came out chopped up, and to our delight, still wriggling!
We squealed like little girls as we used our chopsticks to try and pick up tentacle pieces that stubbornly stuck to the plate.
Caught between our chopsticks and dunked in chilli sauce, it was still wriggling.
Once we got over the gross-out and novelty of worm-like wriggly tentacles and put the sannakji in our mouths, we realised that it’s actually pretty freaking delicious!! Soft and chewy, but not tough at all. Soooo good with the tangy chilli sauce! And yes, there is something to be said for the fresh taste of something that is still kind of alive when you bite into it. Is that cruel? I don’t know… I apologize to any octopus-rights activists out there.
Our maeun-tang came out later on a portable gas stove. It’s a really simple fish-bone broth with plenty of chilli, radish, seaweed, soybean sprouts and greens. The fish gets poached to soft, flakey perfection.
It may not look like much but this maeun-tang has now made it into the top-five things I’ve eaten in Korea. The broth has this amazing clean taste that combines hot chilli and the nectar of the freshest possible fish. The generous serving of vegetables, fish oils and the (hopeful) lack of MSG makes it feel incredibly healthy to eat too. Throw in some rice to soak up the soup and it’s heaven. Also, if you get a bit tired of the texture of raw fish, you can throw your leftover pieces into the stew and let them cook.
We were already full from the flounder and octopus but we demolished the stew without even realizing.
In a clever marketing move, there was a dude walking from table to table offering samples of fresh pineapple that he was selling my the bag. We didn’t know it until we tried it, but fresh sweet/sour pineapple is the perfect dessert to follow a feast of seafood and spicy stew. We paid 10,000 won for a small bag like suckers.
Though it doesn’t appear on many of the official “Top 10″ or “Best things to do” lists, in my opinion, Noryangjin is a MUST visit for both the cultural and culinary experience. It’s not the most foreigner friendly place, but do not fear, I would happily be your guide! Just pay me in prawns and king crab ;)