SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – August 5, 2015 – From the exotic street food of the Kwangjang Market located in the heart of Seoul, South Korea to the implausibly fresh seafood of the Jukdo Fish Market in Pohang, even those with the most educated palates will find their imaginations running wild with the varying textures, flavors and temperatures of the fare of this frenetic Asian gem.
For four days, I’ve been trekking across South Korea exploring the country’s delightfully diverse array of culinary expression. And while bibimbop (veggies, rice, thinly sliced meats and chili paste) and Korean barbeque (thin slices of beef cooked table top) are the nation’s flagship dishes, it is in the hyper-stimulating markets of Korea that the country’s cuisine truly begins to reveal itself.
Even with a small cushion, at 6’2”, sitting shoeless on the floor in front of a long table in a tightly packed seafood restaurant located at the Jukdo Market in Pohang is a claustrophobic exercise. But despite my constant readjustment in effort alleviate pressure on my aching legs, I find myself squirming not from discomfort but in guileless anticipation of the fresh multi-course seafood extravaganza that is about to turn me from mild-mannered travel writer to ravenous leviathan.
When I ask the restaurant’s name, the look from the waitress suggests it is without. The menu is written in colorfully smeared Korean characters on a dry erase board on one of the peeling pea colored walls. Next to it, a television plays Korean baseball, capturing the attention of the majority of the clientele, most of whom are male, nursing a bottle of soju deep into the evening.
Just outside of this mom-and-pop shop, which I later learn is called Seong Jin Heotjib, are more than 200 other raw fish stores and restaurants that make up this open air market. The inescapable pulse of the Korean musical sensation “Gangnam-Style” wheezes through various blown speakers. Scale-covered purveyors clean their catch amid giant blue, halogen-lit tanks abounding with live mollusk, mussels, oysters, squid, octopus, crustaceans and fish otherworldly enough to make even George Lucas recoil.
Soon, along with an ample amount of the Soju (sweet rice wine) and Kimchi, Korea’s national dish made of seasoned, fermented cabbage, radish, and cucumber among other vegetables, I will try a sampling of each one of these curious sea creatures immediately after it is taken from its respective tank, cut, cleaned and served.
When they say that the seafood at the Jukdo Fish Market is the freshest in Korea, they mean it.
The meal begins with a giant tray covered in conch, mussels, oysters, soft shell crab, crab legs, sea snails, sea food salad filled with crustaceans unknown, roe, abalone, octopus, freshly sliced persimmon, and a rose for color. Served with a side of freshly made soy sauce and wasabi, the meal is a joyful exercise in extraction and exaltation and is only just beginning.
Next, the waitress brings a selection of large raw prawn. We each select the ones we would like barbequed. She takes them to the fire outside, where they will be cooked on a bed of sea salt in foil over an open flame. As soon as she is gone, an assortment of sashimi arrives. I ask what kind of fish it is and the waitress shrugs her shoulders. “Fresh. Caught today,” she says.
Having earned my trust with the shellfish course and fortifying myself with a generous serving of soju, I dive in. She tells me to save room. The soup, rice and the prawn are still to come.
The fish soup is a fiery, fishy red broth with chunks of seafood, vegetables and a fish head floating on top. We cleanse our palate with a bowl of sticky rice and then it is time for prawn, served in their respective beds of salt. They are the size of lobsters and better than any lobster I’ve ever eaten.
By the time we are finished, the table looks like a battlefield covered with shells, scales, tails and bones. My muscles no longer ache and the soju has been as warming as the food was filling. As I wander back through the market, I note again the men covered in blood and scales, the jettisoning squid, the languid octopus, the menacing eel, the sea slugs, the crabs, the conch, and all the other indescribable but delectable creatures, and think… despite their off-putting exterior… they look delicious.
And with a last fleeting glance, I’m off to the next stop.
The Kwangjang Market is Seoul’s is oldest and largest market, not to mention the busiest. Built in 1904, the market hosts 35,000 people daily with more than five hundred shops and eateries. The size of more than eight football fields, the market is constantly chaotic, but no place more so than the food court.
The food court, located in the market’s epicenter, has long been an after-work gathering place where tenacious suit-clad Koreans line up at dozens of family run small counters. Each stand offer their own culinary specialty, where customers sip on rice wine called Makgeolli, chomp on one of more than two hundred varieties of Kimchi, and blow off steam over an incalculable assortment of freshly prepared Korean dishes.
No matter where my over-stimulated eyes try to wander, whether to the amorous Korean couple feasting on mung bean and shrimp pancakes, or to the cook, a short, terse woman, as she hovers over a pan of tiny whole fish as the snap in boiling oil, I can’t help but stare at the pig snout that sits in front of me as I wait for my next dish. While there are many culinary conquests in this market, something about pig nose makes me shudder…. I try to focus on my first dish: soft rice, mashed up into balls and covered in chili sauce almost hot enough to serve as a distraction.
Moments later, the terse woman sets in front of me a firm, but chewy rice cake covered in hot chili sauce and a Mayak Gimbap which is loosely translated to mean “Addictive” or “Drug.” It is warm rice, carrots, radish, and crabmeat wrapped in seaweed. While this sounds similar to the standard roll found at any corner sushi joint in any city, when prepared in fresh at this bustling nighttime market, this roll is anything but…
I bite through the brittle seaweed into the rice, soft and warm, and then into crunch of the carrot before finally getting to the fresh crabmeat. The flavors dance with the chili paste from the rice cake I had just finished, and as the flavors continue to blend, I barely even notice the pig snout staring at me through its nostrils. I savor the roll a moment more, thank the cook, and move through the cavernous, chaotic, night market.
Small trucks and scooters share the narrow, indoor thoroughfare with pedestrians browsing the cases of each of the local vendors. Someone mentions Sundae. And while a sundae sounds delicious, I’ve been in Korea long enough to know that they are not talking about ice cream and fudge.
Sundae is steamed pig intestine stuffed with glass noodles, the market favorite. Though daunting in its appearance and earthy in fragrance, the meat is chewy and its strong flavor yields to the soft noodles (sometimes rice) and a spicy, chili-based tteobokki sauce. It is often served with pig liver and/or heart.
While it could be a meal in itself, I take only a few bites and press on.
There are stands everywhere, each with its own specialty. There is yukhoe, a beef tartare mixed with pear slices and egg yolk, and there is Kalmandu, a brothy hot noodle soup with dumplings cooked in anchovy stock. Maeuntang is a spicy fish stew boiled with an ambiguous recipe but usually is made up of assorted veggies and fish cooked with spices hot enough to make you sweat.
There are the surprisingly tender chicken feet, of course covered in hot sauce, and everywhere you go there is Makgeolli rice wine, served chilled and usually in tin cups. Traditionally this milky elixir, similar in taste to sake, is taken in shots, and as my experience has proven, can disappear very quickly.
After a broad sampling of some of Kwangjang Market’s most delicious and curious items, it is time to settle down in one of the restaurants on the market’s perimeter. The restaurant, like most places, is packed. Predictably, within minutes, Gangnam style plays and diners do bashful, diminished versions of the dance.
Men crowd around televisions playing Korean baseball, and unlike in the Korean countryside coast, here, I get a chair. After roaming the market, to sit is a relief, and while I’m getting full, this place claims to be among the best. So good, in fact, that I don’t even order. Food just begins to appear.
The waitress first arrives with the most popular item in the entire market, and besides kimchi, as far as I can tell, in the entire country. Bindaetteok is mung beans (similar to garbanzo beans) that are mashed, mixed with various combinations of vegetables, pork, or seafood, then fried. The texture is more hash brown than pancake, but either way, they are delicious and the variations are endless.
Next is a plate full of jeon, which is similar to Japanese tempura. Shrimp, crab, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and meatballs are dipped into a sweet flour-based batter then fried. You can order specific dishes, but in the spirit of all things food, I try every last one and go so far as to get seconds of the crab. Each greasy, unhealthy piece is an expression of fried goodness.
By meal’s end, I am exhausted. I exit the restaurant once again into the chaos of the market, narrowly missing a scooter rushing down the corridor. I notice that the pig snout from my first booth is missing. Someone has clearly taken it home for dinner. I am thankful that no part of the pig was wasted and more grateful still that it wasn’t me who had to eat it. Something about a snout I just couldn’t stomach… even if it is just pork.
But beyond that, Korean markets are among the finest.