Fish Market in the Korean clouds: Jagalchi, Busan

Fish market Jagalchi Busan 2
Fish market Jagalchi Busan 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Under the grey fog, the colourful parasols and the naked lightbulbs, hundreds of women in mismatched florals and rubber boots attacked the freakish fish of the East.

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.

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  1. Hi, Ailsa. I saw and enjoyed your story on Maptia’s Culinary Adventures theme, and I came by this way to read it here on your blog/website, too. I hope you’re enjoying your time in the deutsche Hauptstadt; I miss Berlin very much!

    • Great to hear from you, fotoeins. I now too miss Berlin very much… I just moved to the Canadian Rockies. How can it still be snowing in mid-April?! Seriously. So anyway, do you have a blog yourself? I’d love to check it out!

      • Hello, Alisa. You’ve moved to “this” side of the world! After being away for a long time, I’m back in Vancouver, Canada (for the time being). It snows in mid-April because well … they’re the Rockies … and they’re snow-capped all year around, aren’t they? The weather will be clear and be warm, soon. Promise. 🙂 I’m writin’ and pho’toggin’ about travel and photography at fotoeins.com; so, please come by. 🙂

        • Looking out at the snow-capped peaks and pines right now, I think I could get used to the cold. It’s beautiful here. Fotoeins, I’m on it – checking out your site now! A recovering astronomer? Wow. To be an astronomer was my childhood dream, until I realised I couldn’t even discern the Big Dipper from the Northern Cross, let alone get all astrophysic-y about the sky.

        • It turns out finding the Big Dipper was the easy part, the first part on my long road to doom. 😉 As for the Rockies, there’s something indescribable about looking at snow-capped mountains; I remember *that* feeling as a young boy the first time I ever laid eyes on the Rockies along the Trans-Canada Highway. Here in Vancouver, seeing the Coast Mountains make me want to know the names of each and every one of them. It’s the same way I felt when I was out and about the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As for my blog, if you feel compelled, please drop me a line or comment on any of my posts, too! 🙂 Cheers, Alisa!

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