Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul

Seoul's largest wholesale fish market, Noryangjin, is located on the southeastern outskirts of Yeouido amid the shadows of the imposing skyscrapers of the capital city's "Manhattan". Follow your nose to the fish market and you'll feel like you've crossed over to the proverbial other side of the tracks. Goodbye glitzy Trump building, hello dingy fish town!

Since I paid my visit in the evening, I missed out on the lively, fast-paced market atmosphere. For that, I'd have to hit Noryangjin in the wee hours of the morning when vendors from 700ish individual shops bid on the day's catch. Around 7pm, the market was quieter than I had expected, with retailers surly feeling the fatigue of a long day's work and suited businesspeople looking for some after-work grub. The vinyl-aproned staff of Noryangjin's shops are obviously accustomed to the wide eyes and camera flashes of tourists, and I was surprised by how amenable most vendors were to my particuarly intrusive photo-snapping style.

The wide array of sea life was a bit overwhelming for a novice, and coming from a country where consumers are largely removed from the process of how a creature becomes cuisine, it felt a little strange selecting a live fish to be killed, sliced, and served on the spot. Thankfully, my KBS cohorts were experienced shoppers and hagglers.

After bargaining for whatever fits your fancy, market employees quickly and deftly turn live swimmers into sashimi. Then they neatly arrange the fish on sturdy paper plates, complete with little oniony garnishes. The remaining carcass is bagged up and saved for a reappearance in tasty soup. Save room for the eyeballs!

One of Noryangjin's greatest features is its adjacent restaurants where you can round out your experience, and your belly, by digging right into your purchase. All the necessary accouterments (soy sauce, wasabi, lettuce, kimchi) are on hand, and restaurant staff begins cooking your fish remnant soup while you get started on the raw fish. It's not fancy, but it was fresh and very economical. My group of six paid about $20 each for as much sashimi, fish soup, seafood pancake (해물파전), and soju we could handle.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Media is the new U.S. beef

About ten years ago the government turned Yeouido asphalt slab into Yeouido Park. By the time I arrived in Seoul, it had become a lovely, verdant spot redolent of cherry blossoms in the springtime and the far less appealing beondegi (silk worm larvae) whenever food vendors set up to serve the passersby. I've heard the impetus for cultivating the park was the government's hope to squelch mass demonstrations by civic groups that had become frequent occurrences on Yeouido asphalt slab.

If that were truly the goal, however, perhaps they shouldn't have left a sizable amount of asphalt in the middle. Most days just bikers, rollerbladers, and basketball players occupy the space, but anytime the country becomes ripe with government distaste (which seems to occur frequently), the park revisits its past. The hot button issue of the month is a set of controversial media reform bills, which include the government and ruling party's plan to privatize the broadcasting sector (something I might even be convinced to fight against if protesting were my thing--instead, I just take pictures). Home to the nation's three top broadcasters and the parliament building, Yeouido was the perfect spot for unionists and other activists to gather Saturday afternoon for a good old fashioned protest. At least it's not about U.S. beef this time!