Busan Fish Market 자갈치시장
A Delicious Slice of Old Korea: the Pusan Fish Market
Do you like your fish raw? We are not talking about plastic-wrapped supermarket sashimi here, we mean fish right off the boat, cut and sliced right before your eyes and served still twitching on your plate.
And we are talking about an abundance of fish, an excess of sea creatures that range from the familiar to the exotic to the truly bizarre. Welcome to the Chagalchi Fish Market in Pusan, South Korea.
Stretched out along the waterfront of the Nampodong district of downtown Pusan, the market, also spelled Jagalchi, consists mainly of one long, narrow lane running parallel to the bay.
The best place to start your tour is by exiting the subway at Jagalchi Station and heading straight toward the sea. You will then enter the market at its busiest section, right in the center of the restaurant area.
The landside of the market lane is lined here with nothing but sashimi (raw fish) restaurants, all of them displaying their offerings in plain view and alive in aquariums, buckets and bowls. The structures on the opposite side look more like temporary market stalls. Most of them also house small restaurants. In between and in front of them are the stalls of merchants who offer their fresh marine products direct to shoppers.
Fresh seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea
A seafood seller (ajumma) at Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea
Anything living in the ocean and edible in one form or another is on offer here - including critters you may otherwise know only from Discovery Channel. From the common red snapper and cutlass fish to giant amounts of squid and octopus to whale meat to fugu (You can buy the poisonous blowfish for your kitchen table at home!) to truly strange beasts like Sea Cucumbers (halsam), Sea Squirts (meongge) and a rare pink water worm aptly named Sea Penis (known in Korean as gaebul). Needless to say, some of the latter require a rather adventurous palate to try them. But as the regular customers are happy to point out, you will learn to love them - though certainly not at first sight.
The whole market is run almost exclusively by ajumma, middle-aged women with curly permed hair known for their relentless hard work as well as for their aggressiveness. Dressed in colorful garb and rubber boots, they cut out the innards of fish, skin wriggling, living seawater eel, loudly hawk their wares and then they grab your jacket, yelling out the special offers of their respective restaurants into your ears.
The really good restaurants don't rely on dragging in customers by force. They let you calmly examine the merchandise swimming in the constantly supplied fresh water in front of their shop, they honestly discuss prices and recommend what might suit your tastes. Most of the ajumma there speak some rudimentary Japanese or know enough English words to make clear what costs what and how it is served.
An example of a really great eatery is the Chung Cheong Province Sashimi House (Chung Cheon Do Huet Jib in Korean) right on restaurant row. A recent meal there started with a plate of sannakji, the chopped-off legs of a small, living octopus. They wriggled on the plate like maggots and their suction cups stuck to the plate and the metal chopsticks. Be carefull to chew them thoroughly - you don't want them to get stuck in your throat. But they do taste delicious with that mysterious sauce exclusively dedicated to them. Makes you wonder why you should eat dead animals - living ones are so much better and fresher!
Next up was a large plate of a flounder-like flat fish prepared as a big plate of sashimi. Both options were given: to eat it Japanese style with soy sauce and wasabi or Korean style, the latter meaning that you wrap the sashimi into lettuce leaves, along with garlic, red pepper paste and kimchi. Both ways were absolutely delicious and well worth trying.
The remains of the fish were then served as a hot and spicy soup. Plenty of side dishes like a plethora of different pickled vegetables were served along with the main dishes. It was impossible to get even near eating it all. What we did manage to eat, we washed down with plenty of Korean beer and soju (Korean rice liquor). The bill for a meal for 4 people? A bit over 60,000 Won which translates to about 6,000 Yen or 58 USD for everything including the drinks.
After a meal like this, you might feel emboldened to explore the parts of the market not so obvious to the first-time visitor. First of all, you may want to step behind that row of seaside stalls and tiny restaurants and actually go to the docks right behind them. Hundreds of fishing boats are anchored there and at all times of the day some bring in their fresh haul. The docks also give you a great view of the Pusan Bay - large and surrounded by mountains while you see fleets of giant merchant ships anchored or moving in and out of the busy Pusan harbor, according to some statistics the second-largest commercial port in East Asia.
After this truly breathtaking view you may want to explore the areas off the main drag of the market. If you walk east (to the left from your arrival point from Jagalchi subway station), you will first encounter the dry fish section.
Dried squid, dried crabs, anything you ever might want to chew on while drinking a beer is for sale here. Next up you discover a giant building on the left which has tiny raw fish eateries covering all of its ground floor - and we are talking the size of a soccer field here.
Then, there are the commercial wholesale market halls which are busiest at sunrise. Further out east the lane becomes rather quiet. There, the shops aren't meant for the casual visitor but for the hard-working men on the boats. Fishing gear of all kinds, shapes and sizes galore, anything a Korean fisherman might want to take to sea.
If you walk in the other direction, west of restaurant row vegetable stalls appear, soon also the occasional butcher, and in between them dealers who have not much of a connection with a food market at all.
Here, you can buy radios, socks, sex toys and an untold number of fake designer clothes and goods. If you are actually looking for those things on your visit to Korea however, you are much better off at the nearby Kukche Market, located more inland on the Western edge of Nampodong.
But make sure you get one final look at the market from the docks out there. Pusan with all its skyscrapers built on the hillsides and Pusan Tower, the local landmark, as backdrop to the countless fishing boats harbored in front of the market shacks. A slice of rough, tough and delirious old Korea set against an encroaching mass of bland modernity.
ajumma, middle-aged women known for their relentless hard work at Jagalchi Fish Market
Asiana Airlines and Japan Airlines operate daily flights from Kansai International Airport, Narita Airport, Chubu International Airport and other airports in Japan to Pusan's Gimhae Airport. Another option is to take the Shinkansen to Hakata, then the Beetle hydrofoil to Pusan. Slower but cheaper is the overnight Camelia ferry also running daily from Hakata to Pusan.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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