Saturday, September 11, 2010

A taste of Korea raw and exotic

Argentine architect Julio Oropel, above, and German chef Gerd Borgbohmer take photographs of fresh produce at Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. Located in Seoul, it is the largest and oldest in Korea and dates back to 1927.

C20 guests savor Noryangjin Market’s unique culture

By Lee Hyo-won

It’s just past 5 a.m., Thursday, before sunrise, but the day has already long begun at Seoul’s Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. Its 700-plus stalls are already in full swing, spanning the length of several baseball fields and crammed with exotic sea creatures from end to end — offering one of the most unique gastronomic spectacles, 24 hours, nonstop.

“This is amazing,” said Gerd Borgbohmer, a chef from Germany. “I’ve been to Rungis, the big fish market in Paris, but there’s such little fish compared to here. And it’s all so fresh,” he exclaimed, pointing his camera lens to the yards of stingrays and line of aquariums packed with fish of every description.

“Oh that would make a fine liver pate,” 
Canadian food columnist Lucy Waverman said about a rather gruesome exhibition of monkfish with split bellies. “Yes, very tasty,” agreed Koichiro Hata, a Japanese cuisine technical advisor. “This over here,” he commented on a display of shiny gizzards, “would make good sushi, though not good enough for sashimi.” The local collection is richer than Tokyo’s but smaller than Osaka’s, he said, but the endless bowls of a million different pickled “jeotgal” can be found nowhere else in the world.

A visit to Korea’s largest and oldest seafood market was not to be missed by the C20 representatives, who gathered in Seoul to share and delight in Korean culture. Despite the early hour a good number of the members didn’t need coffee to kick in as they quickly became immersed in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace.

“There’s so much energy so early in the morning. But everyone is so polite at the same time,” remarked Bruce Dover, the chief executive of Australia Network. “Back home everything goes straight to the freezer but here it’s all alive. It seems to be an Asian mentality, to enjoy things fresh and in their natural state,” added his wife Bici.

Some say Korea being labeled “the land of morning calm” is a misnomer, or at least painfully antiquated. But before jumping to any conclusions, one must consider the concept of “jeong-jung-dong,” movement amid rest, or “dong-jung-jeong,” stillness within motion.
There is a constant buzz — the rap-like rhythm of auctioneers announcing lucrative prices, apron-clad “ajumma” chopping fresh produce with the assurance of an iron chef and water splashing from all directions and angles as sea creatures, very much alive, squiggle and jump around in salt water-filled crates, whether these are sitting on the ground or balancing precariously on a scooter weaving through the labyrinthine stalls. Yet there is calmness, like the serenity within the eye of a storm. 

The most palpable manifestation of this uncanny equilibrium is the absence of a fishy reek; rather, one could almost breathe in fresh sea air. “This is the type of thing you see on the travel channel on television. What’s strange is that it’s not fishy at all, and it’s so fresh! We have fish markets in Argentina but not like this,” exclaimed architect Julio Oropel.

There are tuna and salmon, mackerel caught near Yeosu, Russian king crabs and tiger prawns imported from the Philippines — and even pomfret, native to Indian chef Hemant Oberoi’s homeland as he pointed out. But most of all it’s the dizzying collection of bottom-of-the-sea life that struck the visitors. “There are fish and seafood I have never seen before,” said Patricia Bon, a rising star chef from Brazil. The market has croaker and corvine galore, clams of all shapes and sizes descriptions and sea squirts shaped like giant, pulsating cocoons or threatening red pineapples.

Some left with more questions to be answered.

“You learn so much about a country at the market place, where you see the basis of ingredients of cuisine. But I wonder if there are concerns about environmental awareness here because in the West there are issues about sustainability, such as over-fishing. Korean food is very seasonal and local, so are there species that are being protected?” asked Judy Joo, one of the United Kingdoms’ Iron Chefs.

But perhaps the most important — or at least urgent — inquiry came from how a loaf of bread (or a bowl of noodles) is better than the songs of many birds (or smell of many fish) — “Where are the ramen stalls?” asked the group’s culinary writer Waverman.

The C20 members will simply have to return to savor “hoe” or sashimi a la Korean served wrapped up in sesame leaves with sliced pepper and a stump of raw garlic dipped in bean paste, and see the rest of the fish make their way into a boiling cauldron of red-hot stew. Add a sip of soju, and the bursting flavors in your mouth will enable you to fathom the gist of jeong-jung-dong.

Noryangjin Market is located near Noryangjin Station on subway line 1. Visit (Korean only) for more information.

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