SEOUL: Horrors and flavors of a Korean fish market

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Korea in November is frigid. November in a Korean fish market is just absurd.

After descending the steps into the belly of the market, you end up on a landing above the market. Before you lies what looks like a factory floor with large concrete walls and floor. Stalls are packed tightly together with their large glass cases full of living creatures, calling to mind the lab of a mad scientist.

The room is cold and set up in a way that resembles an aquarium; everything is made of glass and concrete. People try to grab your attention in broken English, their voices ring clearly even through the scarves covering their mouths.

Some of the animals were familiar, like a salmon that was maybe just a little bit bigger than what I was used to, but others looked absolutely extraterrestrial. Crabs were the size of dogs and long slender eels would swim around each other, tying themselves in knots.

There was one animal that was particularly puzzling. In a bucket were long cylinders with a purple hue. They were thick, like the fingers of 10-foot man, but writhed bonelessly in a pile. One end had what looked like lips that would endlessly pucker at you as if blowing kisses. It was disgusting. 

When I asked my Korean friend what they were, she stared at them with a confused expression, shook her head and walked away.

When we found the fish we wanted, the merchant used a large net to pull it out of the water as it flapped about. He then led us into the international game of price haggling. As he was talking, to us the fish flopped out of the basket and began hopping about on the floor. The man looked down at the fish for only a moment before turning back to us and continuing to try to drive up the price.

We got him to bargain with us and handed him the cash. He then took the live fish and within seconds was working on it. In one swift movement he sliced off the head as if tearing plastic wrap. After a few seconds, the body stopped moving and he began to fillet the fish. He removed the skin neatly and then quickly ran the knife along the spine, a perfect cut. 

He prepared the meat neatly on a plate and handed us the head and bones in a plastic bag. 

We took the fish to a restaurant upstairs. Many people stood in line holding freshly slaughtered meals they had wrestled from different vendors. We paid for a seat and the waiter took our bag of bones and innards to the kitchen so that it could be used to prepare a stew.

Our kill lay before us, beautifully arranged. it had been alive only minutes before. I bit in and the meat was so fresh and smooth. The flavor was clean and simple, untainted by anything. 

The soup came out and we picked the meat clinging to the spine with our chopsticks. An old Korean man once told me that the eyes were good for your health so I gouged one out and popped it in my mouth.

I sat back after we were done eating, full but unburdened.