Coming from the Philippines, a trip to the fish market is usually at the very bottom of my list of things to do when I travel abroad. Before my dad worked as a mechanic in the Middle East, he was a fisherman and our family operated a fish business. At the time, we lived in Jomalig. He bought the fish from the fishermen and kept them on large ice boxes until there’s enough to take them to the mainland. My dad or often my uncle would then take them and auction them at the Malabon fish market in Metro Manila. The Malabon fish market supplies fish and other seafood to most of the other markets in the city. The place is filthy and the smell sticks with you for a long time. When I went there, I had to throw my clothes and shoes away, take ten showers and disinfect my entire apartment in order to remove the smell. I bet the sulphurs of hell will be nothing compared to Malabon’s stench. To this day, I barf on the inside at the thought of eating fish from there.
With an experience like that, you would think that going to a fish market would be low on my list but when I travel, I actually really enjoy going to the food markets. When I travel, I always want to know where my food is coming from and how it is being handled. Mostly, I just want to know if I have to switch to a vegetarian diet. Nice try, like that will ever happen. When I went to Seoul, I made sure that I have enough time to see the famous Noryangjin Fish Market where over a thousand species of fish and seafood are sold, often alive, swimming and wiggling in saltwater tanks. For a food-obsessed country like South Korea, fresh is always best.
If you’ve seen the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation or Parts Unknown, Noryangjin fish market is a tourist destination in its own right. It was a cold and rainy morning in May. I got there around 7:00 a.m. I had too much somaek (beer and soju) and fried chicken the previous night so I couldn’t get up at the crack of dawn to see the auction. I thought by getting there at 7:00 a.m. I would be early enough that I’d at least be able to take pictures at the end of of the auction and not get in the way. To my disappointment, there was no one there except for the vendors and a few curious tourists like me. I probably screwed up the timing because I’ve seen enough Youtube videos of tourists buying fish and seafood and taking them to the many restaurants to be prepared and eaten.
I think a lot of people go there to experience eating sanakji. To be honest, I had no intention to do that. If you don’t know what sanakji is, it is live baby octopus chopped and eaten while the tentacles are still wiggling and squirming. Yes, this is fear factor Korean style. Just imagine chewing cold, slimy and crunchy tentacles that wiggle and slide down your throat. Ugh! If that’s not a stuff of nightmares, I don’t know what is. Sorry, Korea. I’ve grown to love kimchi, in fact I make it once a month and I am addicted to your tasty and spicy food but I’ll just have to take a pass on the sanakji.
I didn’t exactly get to take pictures of the fish auction but I still had a great time. I came home with hundreds of images. Unfortunately a lot of my pictures are shaky and out of focus because it was really dark and the market vendors weren’t exactly thrilled to have a camera pointed at them. What I really wanted was to pig-out and eat seafood but the restaurants were closed so even that didn’t happen.
I have some unfinished business with the mean crab lady of Noryangjin. She kept pulling Alaskan king crabs out of the tanks and kept showing them to me. Truthfully those bastards look really sinister and scary like some creature from a horror movie. I really really wanted to eat crab so badly. I didn’t really care that they looked super creepy. I went up and down the stairs to the restaurants and back to crab ahjumma’s stall so many times. She would pull one out and show it to me. I was almost drooling as I looked at the pictures of I’m sure delicious delicious crab dishes at the restaurants. Sadly none of them were open and I left feeling disappointed and hungry. Sorry, crab ahjumma. Maybe next time.