A seafood adventure

By Ben Groundwater

Consider this a beginner’s guide to ensuring your seafood is fresh.

Step one: stare at your seafood as it swims around in a tank. Step two: select the best of said seafood, and watch as it’s yanked from its watery home and prepared to be sent upstairs — not in the figurative sense, but the literal one — to one of a series of restaurants on the floor above.

There, you may indulge in step three: the delicious devouring of your very recently prepared fish. How it’s cooked is up to you. But the freshness is unquestionable.

This is Jagalchi Market, a bustling commercial seafood centre on the waterfront in Busan, South Korea. There’s every seafood imaginable on sale here: fish, species of which you’ve never even seen before; octopus trying to make last-gasp dashes for freedom across the tiled floor; abalone, prawns, squid, eels and shellfish, all alive and kicking in plastic tubs filled to overflowing with salty water.

Market vendors yell their specials and shoppers haggle over prices, stepping carefully across the wet tiled floor to pay their bill, watching as their selection is prepared for immediate consumption. Each vendor, it seems, has a relationship with one of the restaurants above, and fresh seafood is sent straight up the stairs to be prepared — either raw, sashimi-style, or cooked and paired with the traditional Korean accompaniments — and served straight away.

This place is popular, extremely popular, which is a measure of how seriously Koreans take their seafood, and in fact their cuisine in general. There’s a lot of good food around here. Just outside Jagalchi there’s another open-air seafood market, where fish and eels are grilled over hot coals. A few blocks away there’s a bustling night market where all manner of food, from fishcakes on sticks to fried chicken and beer, is dished out to tens of thousands of people every evening.

Koreans love food. Their cuisine might not be as well known as that of neighbouring Japan or China, but this is a serious culture of eating, and it’s all good stuff.

While the famed Michelin guide has just honoured Seoul with its first reviews of the city’s restaurants, much of what Koreans love in the way of food is simple, honest cuisine that’s a far cry from the foams and gels that are usually associated with anything gaining a star. Most Koreans are just as happy huddled around a plastic table in the middle of a bustling fish market as they are dining on haute cuisine.

Busan is a case in point. In this coastal city on the southern tip of Korea, it’s all about seafood. Raw seafood, char-grilled seafood, poached seafood and fried seafood. It’s all very simply done, served up in markets or on street corners, devoured with intent, but not with ceremony.

Throughout the rest of the country, too, the food is varied and delicious, but always approachable. In the nation’s capital, Seoul, you’ll find plenty of purveyors of perhaps Korea’s most famous culinary export, the barbecue. Just keep an eye out for the telltale exhaust fans hanging over the tables: inside you’ll find raucous places where diners cook their own meat over hot coals, usually while drinking beer and soju, the local rice wine, and chatting loudly across the table.

The food is simple: barbecued slices of beef or pork, paired with kim chi — fermented cabbage — raw garlic, and a soy bean and chilli paste. Delicious. Easy.

This city is also the home of “chimaek”, a combination of the Korean words for chicken and beer, and an obsession in this part of the world. Hole-in-the-wall shops across Seoul dish up only these two items: crispy chicken that’s double-fried for extra crunch, and cold beer with which to wash it down. It’s perfect on a cold night. Or any night really.

There are also street food markets across the city, stalls that sell all manner of dishes designed to be eaten on the go. Some serve “mayak kimbap”, tubes of carrot, daikon radish and rice that are dipped in a sweet soy sauce, snacks that known to some in Korea’s expat community as “crack rolls”, due to their highly addictive nature. Others sell mung bean pancakes laced with crispy hunks of pork belly.

In the town of Jeonju, meanwhile, the eating scene is tied very closely to the drinking scene. In fact most food here is either designed to be consumed with alcohol, or designed to be consumed as a cure for drinking too much alcohol.

For the former, stop in at a makgeolli den — a shop that specialises in a milky, fermented rice-based beer — and drink and snack until long into the night. For the recovery, roll up at Hyundai-ok, a tiny restaurant that serves the best bean sprout soup in the country from about 6am — perfect for what ails you at that time of the morning.

And then, of course, it’s off to look for more food. Simple, unpretentious, but tasty Korean cuisine. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding it.