As the largest seafood market in Korea, Busan’s Jagalchi Market is well worth a visit, whether it’s to eat or watch the action, where fishmongers clean up and sell their catch of the day. Even the streets around the market are memorable, with vendors on either side busy working to catch the eye of customers.
The first time I went to Busan’s iconic Jiajiachi fish market, I didn’t eat. Instead, I marveled as I walked past the street vendors outside, then down the aisle of the huge warehouse, lined with stalls with seafood of every color and shape, some still on ice, some already dried, some in water tanks, and some still very much alive.
I watch as I cautiously walk over to the gray tile floor, careful not to step on puddles. What’s that? Wow! Also, what’s that? Sensory overload, my brain tries in vain to make connections. Is that red and yellow bulb a plant or an animal? It looked like a prickly pear. At one point, I paused and asked curiously. What is it….. What’s that? What’s that?
I try not to look too long, or worse, stare blankly, at the beige, hot dog-shaped tank dwellers, piled together like a pile of fat fingertips. Or rather, really a penis. I sucked my eyes back into my sockets and stifled a laugh.
At that time, I was living in Japan and reawakening to the fact that what was normal for me was not normal for everyone and vice versa. It was a lesson I thought I had learned as a child, only to have to reacquaint myself with my own prejudices again. And, being a fickle person, it’s likely to be learned again in the future.
For example, once while hiking with a group of elderly Japanese women, our conversation turned to the toilet. Growing up in the US, I wasn’t used to opening the toilet door to find the porcelain hole in the floor, and a few times just held it until I got the squatting and aiming movements perfect. When asked whether they prefer squatting toilets or toilets, friends agreed: the former in public and the latter in private.
“Really?” I asked in surprise.
“Who would want their ass to touch a stranger’s ass somewhere?” One man replied.
Touched. I must admit that I have since started to use the cabin more frequently for people.
So, revolting as it is, who am I to assume that these interfingered creatures are not completely divine?
But unlike the spicy, fried, and sweet treats that are sold at the nearby street market, these hodgepodge of sea creatures are not tempting, and not just because of their curious appearance. Being about five months pregnant, I have a fear of eating soft cheeses, let alone my fellow Ursula, especially if at all, without knowing how they are cooked.
Pregnancy aside, I’m still curious as a traveler. I’ve read that you can simply approach a hawker, point to something you crave and have it ready for you on the spot. That’s the beauty of the market.
I, who can’t even decide on a familiar flavor, have no idea what to order. Is it the red one with the big eyes, or the flattened flounder? Can I alone finish that big crab that’s bigger than my face?
To no avail, my senses, already stimulated by the pregnancy, struggled to take it all in at once. The air was filled with the pungent smell of salty and fresh fish, and the sounds of hawkers, bargaining, and a noisy crowd playing in the upstairs tuck shop. Oh, to sit upstairs with a group of friends, on the floor, clinking glasses in between bites. It wasn’t just the fish I craved, but the raucous laughter, the whole experience.
Still, the prospect of being alone and actually buying something was daunting, even though every vendor with an apron and gloves I passed was smiling and displaying their similar wares, beckoning me to take a closer look. Knowing that I would freeze as soon as I tried to bargain, I laughed and left the market, snapped a few pictures of the street lined with vendors, and then left, questioning my timidity as soon as I got in the car. As the other passengers boarded the car, I looked out the window at the crowded Market Street and momentarily regretted having missed the opportunity to experience this local tradition.
Busan Market became one of my family’s favorite attractions, taking visitors to experience the most concentrated culture – vibrant, hard-working, well-educated and fun. Every time we take a friend or family member with us, we have the opportunity to see the market with fresh eyes as they stand there quietly, captivated by the lively sights, sounds, smells and tastes mixed together.
When I first came, my desire for fresh fish was matched by a desire to talk to the fishmongers and learn more about them and what they do: where they catch the fish, when they catch it, how they catch it, whether it’s a family business that’s been around for generations.
When I first visited, my desire for fresh fish was matched by a desire to talk to the fishmongers and learn more about them and what they do: where they catch the fish, when and how they catch it, whether it’s a family business that’s been around for generations. As a traveler, I’m drawn to each new place, yes, but as a writer, I’m also drawn to the people, to the beating heart that transforms the land and constructs the history, culture and meaning of each place. When we moved to Korea, I had hoped to learn the language, but struggled to figure out how to say hello, or ask one, two, three thanks.
Fortunately, each time a hawker came up to us, spoke English, and then patiently helped us choose the right amount of fish, crab or shellfish and suggested ways to eat it raw, grilled or steamed. On our first visit, we didn’t know what to do when we picked it out, so the staff was kind enough to take us upstairs to the dining area, which I missed on my first visit.
Like the market on the first floor, the dining area is divided into sections, as is the vegetable market on the first floor, and many places have their own fish tanks, which are full of gurgling fish and full of life. Couples and groups sit at low tables or plastic chairs on the floor, with tables lined with plastic tablecloths.
Over time, we found that each stall owner was connected to one of the eaters upstairs, and each place we visited, we would try a different one. My eyes are always on the tables we pass, trying to memorize the dishes so that when we sit down we can match the menu items handed to us by the waiter. Traditional black bowls, set over a fire, are filled with steaming soup; large round plates with thinly sliced raw fish; and small dishes, such as sauerkraut and marinated fish, add color and flavor.
Several times I tried to avoid the menu, just pointing to a neighbor’s feast, which only ended up confusing me, so I gave up asking, not wanting to be charged for accidentally ordering a raw mystery creature, which would have made me feel compelled to eat so as not to offend, especially after I was pregnant with my second child.
Still, through the suggestions of the waiters, new dishes kept appearing on our table, such as one who picked up our crab skeleton and asked, “Bibimbap?” We knew we liked rice, so we obliged and continued the tradition of filling our stomachs at the end of each meal with salty rice cooked in the juice of the crab. Sometimes we’d get a free gift, like a raw octopus with tentacles still squirming in the plate, an experience I’d never enjoyed since I had a baby in my belly, but Tom grew to love it – the salty, salty sesame oil and the odd sensation of a sucking plate on his tongue, and then he chewed and ate it.
Although we encountered new food, we never had a chance to interact with the busy vendors and waiters other than pointing and ordering and then saying “Kamsahamamnida” when waving goodbye.
However, with our children around, words are not needed. Speechless communication is a child’s superpower. All Megumi had to do was walk up to the fish tank and the fishmonger would approach her with a smile and a lively Korean phrase, or a “Hello”. More than once, the fishmonger pulled a small octopus out of the tank and placed it in Megumi’s small hand. I watched anxiously, not knowing how she would react until her eyes lifted to meet mine, widening in delight as the long, thin tentacles squirmed and slid between her fingers. Then the peddler, Tom and I shared in the laughter, and Megumi giggled as she played with the creature in her hands.
Once, to my surprise, a hawker reached into a jar and pulled out the beige, finger-like thing and put it in my toddler’s hand. Tom and I exchanged glances, widening our eyes and couldn’t help but laugh, while being amused and startled by the image of our three-year-old holding a miniature penis in his hand.
Then the man gently took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, sending an arc of water across the floor. Megumi laughed, widening her eyes in surprise. The man leaned back and waved her new cock again as she dumbfounded, waving her little titties into a belly laugh that we all participated in.