It writhed around for a bit in the small plastic bowl before finally dying, the way any animal might after having its head impaled and skin removed. Without hardly flinching the man grabbed another hagfish from the pile, removed the awl-like tool from the cutting board and drove it through the fish’s head as if to say, “hold still, this will only hurt a little.” Nearby a row of old women, ajummas, were splitting clams with a knife.
Welcome to a routine day at Busan’s famous Jagalchi Fish Market.
The market itself is contained within a large glass building on the harbor, but the fish trading kiosks sprawl for several blocks on either side of the imposing (and brand, spanking new) centerpiece, and about a block or two inland. Right outside the entrance is another man wearing a rubber apron and waders wrangling octopi pulled live from a bucket of saltwater. He takes the animal by its tentacles and lets it suck on his knee while he pulls the guts from its bulbous body (the whole scene gives a renewed meaning to the Captain Beefheart lyrics about mollusks being both fast and bulbous), peeling the Octopus from his knee and throwing the remaining body into a separate container before going back for more.
Inside the market are fishmongers selling just about every imaginable variety of seafood out of impressively enormous live tanks. Those who think Red Lobster smells bad would take care to brace themselves for what might be the worst smelling place they’ve ever encountered. Everything from conch to sea bream is living its last few moments in these tanks before being served sashimi style: raw, at one of the nearby restaurants.
It’s possible to spend hours getting lost in the labyrinth of live tanks and marveling at the cascading sea water spilling over three or four tanks before spilling onto the floor, but a the sashimi restaurants on the second floor is an imperative final stop. The women running these restaurants rush toward visitors with rolled up menus, unrolling them as they walk, showing the different fish you can eat in their kitchen-free diners and prices WallMart would surely envy.
For those who have an aversion to all-out raw fish there is another option: mostly raw and freshly cooked seafood. To be more precise, it is possible to get cooked food, but it will likely be cooked right in front of you, and may be alive until moments before gracing your palate. For example, consider the shrimp.
Those who have never seen a shrimp removed from the cocktail probably don’t know that shrimp have minuscule legs when in the shell, rather like tiny lobsters sans claws, and look like they’re running a marathon with really small steps around the live tank. At this particular establishment shrimp are not served scampi, coconut, grilled, sautéd, chilled, cocktail or any of the myriad other preparations detailed by Bubba back in ’94; no, here you have but one option.
Before bringing the shrimps, the server brought a plate of tiny conch shells and proceeded to demonstrate the process of removing the morsel of meat from the shell with a toothpick. These were, in case you were unsure, raw and tasted very much like the inside of Jagalchi smelled. This blogger went back for seconds, but not thirds.
Moments later she returned and placed a shallow pot atop the camp-stove like device, lined it with foil, and filled it with a generous layer of salt. As one of my professors would say, remember this because it will be important soon. Then she brings out a baker’s dozen shrimp in her arms, removes the lid from the pan and throws them, alive, into the salt where they thrash about for a few minutes like popcorn on a stove-top popper. The server removed the lid, the shrimps jumped a little more and she turned off the heat. Lunch was served.
It’s hard to imagine shrimp tasting better than these oil-free, self-seasoned crustaceans we just watched perish beneath the cover of a pan and a butane flame.
The PETA types and even those less militantly concerned with animal rights may find this a bit disturbing, abusive, and a whole host of other adjectives including, possibly, murderous. But what else can I say except that it was delicious, satisfying, and above all else cheap, clean and probably healthier than any of the pre-killed seafood I fed myself while employed by Red Lobster for two and a half years; not to mention damn tastier. For many, the thought of an animal scampering around in a cauldron of salt until the moment it dies and immediately thereafter feasting upon its body is something that should happen only in the abstract. The reality of cuisine is brutally different, however, and seeing things like the spectacle of Jagalchi really drives home the challenge any good gourmet should confront. The challenge has moral and philosophical implications that should perhaps be left to the pros to ponder, but to the casual diner who will eat the hamburger but refuses to eat veal because it is from a baby cow, or the seafood lover who will not cook up a Maine lobster because of the caustic commotion created by the clang of a lobster swimming to its death in a pot of boiling water, yet has no qualms with the king crab or shrimp scampi, it is a necessary and humbling one to endure. The focal point of it is to force the line of questioning similar to the one forced by David Foster Wallace in his famous 2004 essay, “Consider the Lobster” (published first in Gourmet [RIP]), which he ends by asking rhetorically:
“After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and it’s overall context what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”
That is to say, that those of us who proclaim our love for food: the slow foodies, the fast foodies, the green, sustainable, or experimental foodies should not only focus our attention to food awareness in only one direction but ignore or dismiss places like Jagalchi out of hand. To ignore that regardless of whether the cow was a calf or an adult when it was served to you, the slaughterhouse saw it first; or that regardless of whether it was alive and kicking seconds or days before it was cooked and served, it was at some point killed by a human, and if Jagalchi is anything like other fish markets, in a public exhibition. To ignore this is to commit an egregious straw man by picking apart the flaws of the overwhelming majority of people who are decidedly not foodies with an air of sophistication and arrogant condescension, and all out ignoring the flaws of their own argument. The harsh and brutal reality that everyone who claims or is ascribed the title of foodie should confront is that your food is killed, sometimes brutally. Call it murder, cruelty, or whatever you want, but, as the old saw goes, don’t knock it until you have seen it and tried it. Go to Jagalchi and watch the shrimp battle the salt, eat it, savor it, enjoy it, and if at the end of the day you feel like a criminal, you win.
As for me, would I do it again? You had better believe it.