Despite the ubiquity of Korean barbecue and the passion U.S. beef incites in South Korea, we’re really a seafood-eating people. The country, after all, is surrounded on three sides by water. Seafood, in one form or another, is in a huge number of Korean dishes, including many that have no visible sign of fish, clam or anchovy.
Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul is one of the best places to see that Korean reliance on seafood manifest. It’s not spic-and-span like the fish market of La Boqueria in Barcelona. The floor is concrete, everyone is wearing rubber boots, and blinding bulbs dangle over rows and rows of fish and anything else that is edible from the sea. There are giant barrels of salted fermented shrimp, an essential ingredient in many types of kimchi. If that’s not your thing, there’s plenty of hot-pink skate fish laid out like grotesque jewels, tanks stuffed too full with flukes in an obviously low mood, and sea squirts that look like Nerf toys. Everyone’s calling out to you to buy his fish. Almost everything is still alive.
And if you want to see what Koreans value in their seafood, you can find out right there. You can pick out your fish/hairy crab/what-have-you and take it to one of the many restaurants that line the market.
If you’re buying a fish, like a 광어, gwangoe, (halibut) or a 민어, minuh, (Japanese sea bass), the assumption will be that, of course, you want to eat it raw. The Japanese call it sashimi, we call it 회, “hoe” (pronounced “heh”). The same is true if you buy sea cucumbers and sea squirts, which we did. Be prepared, the preferred method of execution at Noryangjin seems to be to take a hammer to the fish’s head. The fishmonger will then filet and slice it, carefully putting the bones in a plastic bag for you as well.
You take the platter of raw fish, along with your bones, to one of the restaurants. (We went to “Seoul Shikdang,” or “Seoul Restaurant,” though I have a feeling they’re all more or less the same). The restaurant will whisk the bones into the kitchen and bring out all the condiments Koreans consider essential to raw fish: fresh lettuce, perilla leaves, red pepper sauce, soybean paste, and slices of raw green pepper and garlic.
While you dip and wrap and eat your fish, the kitchen gets to work on making 매운탕, maeuntang, a spicy fish stew. In most restaurants, any maeuntang you order will have big chunks of fish, which could be cod or red snapper or almost any firm white fish, but it’s essentially a dish of economy, a soup made of fish bones. That’s precisely what happens at Noryangjin, since you’ve eaten most of the flesh raw. (Sounds vicious, doesn’t it?) Maeuntang is also often filled with tofu and vegetables, like bean sprouts, Korean parsley or chrysanthemum greens, which have an incredibly strong and delicious flavor. The best maeuntang has a sweet, as well as a red peppery flavor, the kind of sweetness that comes only from well-made fish stock.
You can see there’s a theme. Koreans don’t generally leave their fish alone. Diane and I were eating with my friend Angela and husband Jooshin, who is a Korean-American sushi chef, and he crystallized for me something I’d been sensing for awhile: “For Koreans, raw fish is all about texture.”
The Japanese place a premium on letting the natural flavor of raw fish shine through, to stay clean and rather pure. In contrast, there is very little purity going on when you slather a piece of fish with red pepper sauce and wrap it in lettuce with a bit of raw garlic. It explains why Koreans generally prefer chewy fish like halibut and sea bass over a soft slab of tuna, and why the totally disarming seawater flavor of raw sea squirt doesn’t keep them from enjoying that weird, wild slippery sensation. There are times when Koreans will eat seafood unadorned—freshly steamed crabs, for example, and simply grilled Spanish mackerel. But for every steamed, naked crab I’ve eaten in my life, I’ve probably eaten five raw crabs marinated in soy sauce, which is kind of like a Korean ceviche.
Noryangjin Fish Market won’t give you the most ethereal seafood experience of your life. But I love it for what it does supremely well, showing the almost irreverent, expansive, affectionate attitude Koreans have towards the seafood that is so central to their lives.