This week a lovely little Korean lady took me to Noryangjin Fish Market.
Noryangjin Fish market is a major fish market in Seoul, right near the 63 Building on Yeouido, smack in the middle of the Han river. The buildings look, of course, completely industrial. The complex is a skeleton of steel wrapped in tin which stretches over thousands of square feet of concrete. Stepping out of Norangjin Station and crawling up the stairs to the rooftop parking lot, the buildings are perfectly placed to catch a view of Seoul’s cityscape at twilight.
The complex is home to hundreds of fish mongers selling fish to locals and tourists alike. Strolling down the isles, dodging seawater pooling on the bare concrete floors, you can see all sorts of fish, shellfish, crabs, and even squid held in tanks under large incandescent lights. There must be thousands of fish there. In behind the main isle of sellers you can step into booths that cater more towards commercial than retail sales. Everywhere you look water it tickling alongside tools and plastic tubs. Fishheads lay along the concrete floor as severed bodies flap around wildly.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
While this is a great spot to watch an interesting part of Korean life, the Korean fishmongers are mostly countryside rednecks so if you’re visiting as a mixed race couple…
I took my lady’s hand as we made our way past a group of Chinese tourists to look at a set of tanks a few meters away. While passing, I heard one of the fish mongers say in Hanguk-mal, “Are you Korean??” I looked back and saw that he was talking to my girl. Next I heard him mutter some angry words to her, but couldn’t tell what he was saying because my Korean is still fairly limited. My girl was noticably shaken, though; she looked away quickly with a very uncomfortable expression. I asked her what he said to her, but she wouldn’t tell me. As we continued walking, the same thing happened three or four more times, and I began to get really, really angry. While she refused again and again to tell me what they were saying, given the context and her reaction, I assume they were calling her a slut because she was with a foreign man.
Racism is rampant in Korea. This is something that should be expected in a country that has only recently opened up to the outside world, and is changing rapidly in the face of an extremely homogeneous and traditional population. Adding to this, Korea’s history of being conquered and treated brutally by it’s neighbors has infused a strong undercurrent of xenophobia into the population. While a lot of people in major cities are beginning to open up to different races, and some are even beginning to accept mixed-race couples, there are still a lot of bigots in areas with less exposure to foreigners. Unfortunately, some (or many) of the fishmongers at Noryangjin Fish Market are bigots so you should expect insults and taunts if you visit as a mixed-race couple.
What: Noryangjin Fish Market
Where: Noryangjin Station line 9, or line 1, Yeouido.
Why: To see a spectacular amount of fish sold by actual fisherman, to buy one of those fish, and then to eat it at one of the many restaurants set up within the complex.
How: Take subway line one or 9 to Noryangjin station, step out of exit 5 (if coming via line 9), and follow other people. You should be walking in the direction of the 63 building which can be easily seen from the station
Finding, then Killing, Nemo
A little while later, after wandering around the complex watching women de-scale live fish, we were getting a little hungry. Seeing all the ladies work their magic, we decided to pick out the cutest little fish we could find and have him killed so we could eat sashimi.
We trekked back through the rows of open-mined and highly cultured fishmongers to a little stall that seemed friendly enough. In one of the tanks we spotted a fish that was just about the right size for the two of us. We asked the fish-seller how much it was, but it turned out we had expensive taste. That one fish was the priciest fish we could have selected, costing a staggering $100.
We moved on to the next stall and ended up picking out something that looked like a flounder, and the fishmonger through in a few small fish for free. Awesome!
To be completely honest with you, I hate killing animals. I think it’s gruesome. That being said, sashimi is amazingly delicious, and if something has to die in order for me to be able to eat something so delicious, so be it.
What is really interesting is the way they make the sashimi, the way they can do it within minutes, and the way everything comes apart so cleanly… and deliciously.
After Nemo was dead, we took him over to a little restaurant in the complex and rented a couple seats for 6 000W, and bought a couple of cokes. It was only, maybe, a 10 minute wait from tank to mouth ~ there is nothing like fresh sashimi. It’s awesome.
Overall, Noryangjin was well worth the trip; it’s a slice of Korean life that foreigners rarely see and if you can survive the racial bigotry, a day spent there can be really interesting. It’s was pretty much as good as our trip to Suwon to take in the Hwaseong Fortress UNESCO site the previous week. If you go make sure to go near sunset to take in the view, and buy some fish. With any luck, you’ll be able to eat something as cute as we did.
Sashimi is great, but there’s even better Korean food on offer. Pickup my 25 Essential Korean Foods eBook to discover the foods that expats and Koreans alike go ape over.