Exploring the Jagalchi Market and Eating Eels in Busan Korea

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We walked in silence into the main artery of Jagalchi Market, letting ourselves be led by the slipstream of people heading into its heart. On each side were countless stalls with their wares splayed out in front of us. Jagalchi is both the heart and soul of Busan. To understand the market is to understand the city's history, and this first trip gave me a taste of the old city, which, while disappearing a bit more each day, will always be alive down where the boats unload their catches.

At first it was mainly fish—cod, flounder, mackerel, and monkfish, along with the omnipresent galchi—long, thin, and bright silver—known as scabbard fish in English. These stalls were almost universally manned by tough old women in rubber boots, rubber gloves, and visors. They sat on squat stools, bundled up against the slicing winds of early March, barking out prices to the river of passersby.

The ground was wet and at times there were small puddles of muck: this market was a place for heavy shoes or boots, and I was thankful that I was appropriately shod.

"Check that out." Scott pointed to an old man in a straw hat who haphazardly manned a wheelbarrow, containing the carcass of a huge shark.

To our left the fish stalls began to get more exotic in their inventories. Octopus was now the dominant feature, with huge specimens hanging from hooks. I stopped and clicked pictures, much to the annoyance of the old woman manning the booth, who brusquely waved me away. I ignored her for a short time, too fascinated by the jarring beauty and pure alien form of the cephalopods in front of us.

As we walked further, we saw more octopuses, this time smaller and, moreover, alive. They were kept in buckets of seawater.

At one point I saw a crafty fellow escape his prison and make a break for it, correctly heading in the direction of the sea. He made it about fifteen feet before his minder —- another rubber and visor adorned grandmother -— noticed his attempt.

She rose from her stool and tromped over to the octopus, grabbed it firmly by its head, and flung it back into the bucket. She punctuated this move with a barrage of verbal abuse delivered from the depths of her throat. It was clear that this old woman was no gentle keeper. There is no room for sentimentality at the fish market.

At one point Scott and I headed off of the main concourse, into one of Jagalchi's raw fish pavilions. This was a giant indoor space -— a kind of warehouse.

The women were now mainly replaced by men, who wore rubber bibs and manned seafood stations made up of multiple tanks, a prep area, as well as tables and chairs. The open-topped tanks housed not just fish, but shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, bulbous orange specimens called mongae (sea squirt), and gaebul (long pinkish things that resembled huge, uncircumcised penises).

The customers gathered around the stations and picked out their own goods, which were then dispatched, sliced up on the spot, and served raw, of course.

Our New Book

As we wandered through the gargantuan complex I was dizzied by the sheer number of workers and customers, not to mention the sea critters themselves. The building was bathed in fluorescent light, and the din of hundreds of Koreans eating and drinking echoed off of the structure's concrete pillars.

The deeper we got into Jagalchi, the weirder it became.

We now passed by a whole section dedicated to the eating of raw shark meat, which turned into dolphin, which turned into whale. Seafood no longer held exclusive rights, as I took in places selling frogs, live turtles, and a few severed pigs' heads. The crowd briefly split as a beggar made his way through their midst. He lay on his stomach, underneath which was a board on casters. In front of him was a donation box, as well as a car battery connected to a portable stereo, on which was playing a repetitive Buddhist chant, complete with knocking wood sounds. His legs were terribly shriveled -— useless it seemed -— covered by leggings made from tire rubber. He propelled himself by his arms, literally dragging himself over the wet and filthy pavement.

He looked like a sad merman, and would be the first of several more I would see that day, a common sight throughout the old markets of Busan.

A bit taken back, we walked in silence, until Scott asked, "So, what do you want to eat? There's plenty to choose from."

"Hmmm…" I considered my options, which were intimidating in number. "Let’s walk a bit more and see what grabs our eye."

As we continued, I noticed several places selling live eels, which swam and slithered in the display tanks. Men sat at in chairs, eating sliced bits of the things frying on tabletop gas stoves.

"That looks interesting."

An old woman working at one of the joints sensed our curiosity and shouted our way, urging us to come in and eat. "Mashisseoyo!"

I recognized the word—it was one of the first I had learned: delicious.

She scuttled out to where we stood and smiled, waving us in and pointing to one of the empty tables in her stall, where, before we knew it, we were seated next to a portable heater, sharing a bottle of soju and waiting for our pan of undulating chunks of eel.

Perhaps the most interesting (or horrifying) thing about Korean fried eel (geom jang-eoh) is its preparation. The eels are plucked from the tank, one at a time, and literally pinned to a wooden cutting board by the head. The cook then skins the thing alive and chops the wriggling body into easy-to-eat segments. These still-moving bits, which squirm for some time after death, are thrown onto some aluminum foil over a pan, and fried up with red pepper paste and a liberal amount of onions. They twitch and jerk until the heat of the pan finally renders them still, and are then wrapped in sesame leaves and eaten, along with some side dishes. This is almost always accompanied with soju, the vodka-like liquor drunken throughout the peninsula. Goem jang-eoh is most popular with older men, who value the bony tail above all, for its alleged properties of stamina.

We were ignorant of the alleged sexual properties of fried eel that day, choosing it instead for its exoticism. While eel is eaten in many European countries, it is generally scoffed at in North America, where it's considered to be a low-quality fish -— a scavenger -— almost never sought-after as a meal.

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that eels do resemble snakes, and this primal fear of snakes is more than enough to keep eels off the menu back home.

Scott and I took down our eel with fervor, though. The woman that ran the stand was tickled to have to these two very green foreigners giving it a try, laughing at our fascination with the dish, and thrilled to be letting us in on one of Busan's secrets.

She didn't have to sell us too hard, though, because the meal was delicious. It was also aided by several inevitable bottles of soju, which helped to make the flow of the market melt into a happy blur.

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Chris Tharp lives in Busan, South Korea, where he writes, teaches, and screams into microphones. He's a regular columnist for Busan Haps magazine, and his award-winning writing can be found around the web. His book, "Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea", was recently published by Hong Kong's Signal 8 Press and is available through Amazon and other fine booksellers.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

September 1, 2016

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