There were dried pollack hanging from fishing lines, as gold as honeycomb, and heaps of dried anchovies shining like jewels in carboard boxes. King crabs clawed at their tiny blue tanks, while pink fish lay flacid in plastic sieves.
Octopus were splayed on wet tiles, their tentacles spread open for the customers, pink sea penis writhed around in frothing tanks.
There are over three hundred kinds of fish at Jagalchi fish market in South Korea, it’s the biggest in the country. On a wet Sunday afternoon in June, the tarpaulin marquees lining the street were filled with anoraked families diving into spicy plates of fish, the steam from crab hot pots all around.
After wandering in the bright lights and the fog, we followed a twinkling ajumma into the warmth of her peeling restaurant, and sat on the curling linoleum while tiny dishes clattered onto the table: wilted spinach and sesame seeds, mushrooms and crunchy anchovies, steamed egg bubbling in a hotpot, red raw kimchi, bean sprouts and wobbling hunks of tofu, boiled potatoes and cuts of cucumber, red pastes, brown pastes, speckled quail eggs and black beans, lettuce and sesame leaves.
We shared grilled cod still in its chewy, caramel skin. It was as salty and glorious as peanut brittle, then slid our chopsticks into fried mackerel, cooked in the grease of a dozen other fish, and all the more flakey and buttery for it. There was no lemon slices or white wine, no clean flavours or palate cleansers, just the salty taste of the sea a breath away – rusty boats and calloused hands, the dark harbour pavement they were chucked on hours before.
As we dived into the sidedishes, the owner lit a paraffin stove in the middle of the low table, then carried through a pan writhing with baby eels. Purple veins glistened in spicy red sauce. The eels continued to flip and flop above the heat of the fire. I wrapped one in a lettuce leaf and covered it with rice. It was as firm and chewy as a rice cake, as rough as Busan itself.
We payed 10,000W each for the feast, and headed back out to the market in the clouds. The indoor section is bigger than a football pitch, and six storeys tall. Yet we stayed outside, where the women living in guts gently joked as they hosed puddles of blood off the road.
Men selling piles of novelty socks winked and made salty remarks about our legs. I realised I’d missed some of that seedy seaside way of life.
We eventually went to the subway toilets to wash our feet, then took the train home to sparkling Seoul. As we ordered macarons from a pattiserie in the capital, a whiff of fish floated up from between our toes, a final hit of the South.