No Doubt About It: Something is Definitely Fishy in Busan

Saturday Morning Sights and Oh-My-Goodness Smells of Busan

There is something surreal about emerging from the underground isolation of a subway station into the open air of a new place. Our first Saturday morning steps out of the station and onto one of Busan’s humming city streets were no exception. But this wasn’t just any subway stop in Busan. This stop, I knew, led to one of East Asia’s largest fish markets among the city’s top attractions. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the sights, sounds, and oh-my-goodness, smells of the Jagalchi Fish Market.

South Korea’s second largest city, Busan sits on the peninsula’s southeastern coast, and is a port city through and through. Urban but surprisingly un-cosmopolitan, globalization and Korea’s rapid economic growth seem not to have altered the historic no-nonsense, rugged character of this city. It’s industrial, it’s gritty, it’s practical. And the proof of that was in the pudding, or more precisely the wriggling hagfish and pulsating conch shells, among other things, of the Jagalchi fish market.

Vendors had set up shop just yards from the docks where boats unloaded their latest catch, and sea creatures, from the familiar to the entirely foreign and bizarre, were on display for gawkers and customers alike. “King Crabby,” a lipsticked fishmonger crooned as we walked past her restaurant, trying to snag tourists on the market’s outskirts, but her selling cry didn’t even begin to describe the many choices within sniffing distance. Catching a glimpse of the ocean water just yards away in the cracks between stalls, we were soon flanked by sea creatures of every kind displayed in every manner. Strange gooey matter pulsated inside shells balancing over tanks churning with huge prawns. Tentacles overlapped as octopi competed for a place to attach their suction cups, and burnt sienna tubes undulated strangely like a large intestine cut into pieces in a shallow bowl of water. Eels slid around deviously behind thick glass, and long flat fish with bodies designed for laying on the ocean floor piled on top of each other like old pizza boxes in a college dorm. Wherever your eyes might land, something interesting was waiting to greet them.

A Place of Many Interesting Characters

Jagalchi’s assault on the senses didn’t end with the living however. This was no place for the squeamish, as all around us was proof that perhaps the space between living and dead was a writhing spectrum. Hagfish, one after another, were impaled through the head on street-side cutting boards and then skinned alive, wriggling the whole time. I don’t entirely know what a hagfish looks like on a restaurant plate, but I know the next time I see one I will have a new respect for the tough little guys. The only thing more engrossing than the animals were the people hovering around them. The man ridding hagfish of their skin moved with robotic speed, while nearby a salesman under a small tent peddled some sort of miraculous snake ointment while a massive python napped beside him in a milk crate.

Not one interesting character rivaled the small elderly woman we saw found standing in red boots, sucking on a cigarette, thin hair pulled back in a chignon, a green rubber apron wrapped over silk floral pants, with a large bowl between her feet. After a short exchange with a Korean passerby, that sweet old woman reached down with knobby hands, and pulled an octopus out of the bowl. Cigarette still firmly tucked in the corner of her mouth, she deftly yanked all the stringy essentials from the back of the octopus’s noggin in one surprising fell swoop. Covered in ink with tentacles flailing, she dunked the octopus in its old tank a couple times then packaged it up and sent the customer on her way, without having shaken a bit of ash loose from her cigarette. And with that image in our mind, we headed for lunch, where of course, more new experiences awaited.

“The Shrimp Season Themselves”

photos by Anna Waigand
Busan is known for sashimi, or thinly sliced raw fish. Being a little hesitant when it comes to sea food, we decided to ease into the local cuisine with barbecued shrimp (the sashimi we tried for dinner, but it was relatively tasteless and less than memorable). Barbeque struck me as a concept I was familiar with and knew Koreans executed well. Nothing about the preparation of our shrimp was familiar, but true to the peninsula’s culinary reputation, the barbeque was delicious.

Firing up a stove at our table, our waitress placed a pan, filled with a thick layer of coarse salt, over the flame. Alone in the restaurant and picking at raw conch doused in red pepper sauce, our waitress soon walked over with two bowls stacked on top of each other. The bowl on top was empty, which struck me as strange, when I realized it only served the practical purpose of keeping the alive and kicking shrimp below in their container for the walk to our table, where they were suddenly thrown onto the hot bed of salt.

Since I was the only member of the table lacking an appreciation of sea food, it made perfect sense that when the lid was hastily placed over the just-thrown-in shrimp, one little guy came flying out and obviously catapulted straight towards me. With a wimpy little squeal I attempted to get out of the way of the crustacean careening my way, and avoided all but a brush on the side as it fell to the ground. I tried to remain calm and act as if I was completely accustomed to having panicked shrimp sputter beside my foot in dining establishments, but I couldn’t hide my surprise when the waitress picked it up and threw it back in the pan with its buddies.

“They season themselves” our friend Anna wryly observed, and she was right, they were coating themselves in salt with every futile spasm. Watching their thrashing calm to twitching and then stillness beneath the steam covered top, I couldn’t help but imagine a violently tragic ending to an epic drama unfolding in the pan. Once they turned a rosy pink, we dug in. Ignoring my usual doubts about swimming creatures of any kind, I tore off a head and little legs and took my first butter and oil-free bite, an absolutely, amazingly delicious first bite of a meal I will not soon forget.

I watched Little Mermaid but…

Our shrimp lunch wasn’t the only time a part of me pitied the animals. I know it contradicts the phylogenetic tree, but watching little octopus tentacles slip desperately over the tank’s edge looking for something to suction-cup onto, I naively imagined that inside that tank a version of Finding Nemo was unfolding, except I knew how this one was going to end. I watched Sebastian try to escape the snooty French chef in Little Mermaid, but watching real sea animals die in so many ways right before me lacked the comic relief of a Disney cartoon.

It’s no surprise that my brain kept returning to childish memories of underwater escapades in animated films. I suppose the only difference between watching your food wriggle around before it’s consumed is the watching part. While I certainly don’t think it should be enjoyed, if you are a meat eater, there is value in seeing that the food you can so cleanly buy in the frozen foods section is on its last stop in a long journey that at some point included a few unpleasant moments.

Jagalchi then and now

Compared to years past, few vendors hit the streets to sell their wares by the harbor. In 2006, after extensive city planning and three years spent on construction, many Jagalchi’s fish marketeers found a new home. A $47.4 million dollar, seven story, modern marine center, the new building is impressive and even offers a roof with a charming lookout. According to John Scott Marchant, not all were as impressed by the new structures throwing shadows over those setting up shop on the street.

Busan was the only city to avoid invasion from North Korea during the Korean War (1950-53). Since then, it has grown to a city of 3.7 million people, many of them once refugees fleeing conflict in the northern parts of the peninsula. Arriving with nothing in the last untouched city in a country in ruins, many of them used what the ocean had to offer to survive, setting up makeshift homes by the water to feed their families and sell what they could. While the old docks that once hosted these people became both an eyesore and a public health concern as years passed, Marchant argues many also viewed them as a historical testament to what prevailed, not what was falling down. “For many of the locals, the new Jagalchi complex represents an irrevocable shift away from the traditions that made the fish market what it is today” Marchant said. One tourist who visited years ago lamented that a more sanitized version of the fish market might also sterilize the place of its history. “Really, it wasn’t until I visited Jagalchi that I felt like I’d experienced Korea,” the visitor said.

While I don’t presume to have learned enough about Korea in the past three months to pinpoint what constitutes “the real Korea‚” and what does not, there is a definite feeling of authenticity oozing from Jagalchi. For me, watching fish swim in their tanks was a spectacle, but on the part of the vendors, nothing about it seemed to be a show. Hagfish were skinned on the street because that’s where they were sold, and it was the most practical place to do it. From my distant observations, the gap between older generations and younger ones often appears immense. In comparison to the droves of young Korean women outfitted in heels, makeup perfectly applied and no curl out of place, older women seem to exude the attitude that, after living through grizzly wars, occupations, and the division of their country, they simply don’t have time for such nonsense. Nowhere was the reflection of a time when survival and practicality dominated daily life out of necessity clearer than in that old woman with the red bowl between her feet.

I barely knew of the Jagalchi Fish Market before browsing my Lonely Planet on the late night train ride across a darkened countryside. The Pusan International Film Festival, a story in itself I’ll save for another day, brought me to Busan, but the fish market left with me, because, contrary to the artificial gleam of so many tourist attractions, what shone through there was the glaring authenticity. And that is a lucky sight to find.

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