Jokbal (족발) is one of those divisive Korean foods that people tend to either love or hate. Even if you haven’t eaten it, you’ve probably seen it in the market; those huge piles of whole pig’s trotter are kinda hard to miss. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to eat it, and I regret that, because jokbal isn’t anything like as disgusting as it might look to the intrepid foreign visitor to Korea. Seasoned Seoul hands probably won’t find anything in this blog post they don’t already know, but if you’re new to the country, or want to branch out a bit from Vatos and Linus BBQ, read on.
What is jokbal? Simply put, it’s pig’s foot (or leg) seasoned, boiled and deboned. It’s beyond the scope of this post to explain how it’s cooked, since I am now 40 and my bucket list emphatically does not include standing in my kitchen boiling raw pig’s trotters in my spare time, but suffice to say that the feet are boiled up for a few hours (recipes vary) with a mixture of scallion or leek, garlic, soy sauce (간장), rice wine (청주), sugar and whatnot until they are as bronzed as a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sliced and served up on a large plate with the usual accompaniments of lettuce leaves and shrimp seasoning (새우젓), it almost looks respectable. The meat is quite greasy and somewhat gamey, but if you enjoy pork then it shouldn’t really be very challenging. Dip in the shrimp for some seasoning, add some ssamjang and garlic, wrap it up in a leaf and go for it. The meat from the front leg has more flavour, but can be unpleasantly chewy for the first-timer; the meat from the back leg is said to be meatier and more tender. Your call.
In fact, jokbal’s one of the most distinctive dishes you can get here, and it’s worth trying at least once. I now find myself caught right in the middle, on the fine line between love and hate. I didn’t care for it at first, but when you go to a good, down-to-earth jokbal restaurant and have the real thing, it grows on you.
Many jokbal places give you bits and pieces of pork goodness as free accompaniments. At Mapo King Jokbal (마포왕족발) in Gongdeok Market, near to Sinchon, they bring a bubbling bowl of sundaeguk (순대국), which is a soup made with Korean blood sausage, and a plate of sundae with some other odd pieces of pig. If this is all a bit too adventurous for you (I am not a fan of sundae, I must confess), then just wait for the main event.
Needless to say, this being Korea, jokbal is held to have health-giving properties; good for the skin, due to the collagen in the trotters, it’ll have your wrinkles gone in no time, or so they say. It’s also said to be good for hangovers, which seems counter-intuitive given that everyone in the joint is usually pounding back soju like it’s going out of fashion – but hey, when in Rome. I’m not quite Korean enough to eat jokbal for breakfast to find out, so I’ll take their word for it. After all, it’s not like Korea ever makes bullshit health claims for its delicacies, right? What? Oh.
Where should you go for jokbal? I’m firmly of the view that this is a food for eating in a grimy back-alley eaterie that’s been churning out the same dish for half a century. The two best places in Seoul to get it are at the afore-mentioned Gongdeok Market (공덕시장), which is at exit 5 of Gongdeok station on line 6, halfway between Itaewon and Sinchon – take the first left out of the exit and wander the stalls of jokbal, fried snacks and binddaedeok (mung bean pancakes, which are also much nicer than they sound) – or at Jangchung’s “Jokbal alley” (장충 족발 골목), where some of the places have been in business since before the Korean War, such as 뚱뚱이할머니집 (which I think translates as “Fat Grandma’s House”) and which supposedly started life in Pyongyang before moving down south in the 50’s. Go to Dogguk University subway (동대입구역) and head out of exit 3, following the road round to the right for a couple of minutes until you hit the good stuff.
Of course you can get jokbal everywhere – in Busan they serve it up as naengchae jokbal (냉채족발), below, with mustard sauce and cold jellyfish salad – yes, you’re reading that right. I could probably live out the rest of my years without eating that again.
I must admit that, even without sliced-up jellyfish on the plate with it, I will never love jokbal the way that I love bossam, samgyeopsal or Kim Tae-Hee. But good jokbal is something worth seeking out, even if only for the Facebook pictures that your friends back home will goggle at, and who knows – you may end up loving it.
A trip to a Korean fish market is one of those things that always pops up on tourist “must-do” lists, but a lot of foreign residents are a little afraid to brave the wet floors and fishy smells of Noryangjin, especially those whose Korean is poor (like mine) or non-existent. That’s a shame, because it is arguably – along with Korean BBQ, drinking soju outside the convenience store and late-night drunken noraebang – the quintessential Seoul experience, and certainly something you will not find back home.
So, first things first; you don’t have to speak Korean to go to Noryangjin, and you don’t need to know anything about fish. Yes, both of those things will definitely help, but you can get by without them if you really need to. Here are the basics.
Noryangjin Fish Market is right at Noryangjin (노량진) subway station on lines 1 and 9, about 20 minutes by subway from Itaewon. Come out of the station and cross the large footbridge across the tracks – there are a couple of signs in English for the fish market. You will find yourself basically on the roof of the market, and descend down an unpromising set of stairs to a balcony overlooking the market floor, following the fishy smell.
Noryangjin is a real, working fish market, and not for the squeamish! Pro tip: wear some closed-toe shoes or boots that can handle puddles, especially in winter when the floor of the market is covered in puddles of fishy water (and cold, too). This is not the place to road-test your new Christian Louboutins.
Now the fun begins. Take your time perusing the stalls, take some photos, check out the weird and wonderful sea creatures, many of which probably don’t even have English names (with some of them, like the “dog penis”, you’ll wish they didn’t). This is a good place to take videos on your phone. Don’t worry if you don’t know the name for anything – just point and ask.
Korean people generally come here for the freshest “hwe” (회), sliced raw fish. Even if (like me) you don’t know your gurnards from your pilchards, stall holders will help you pick out a suitable fish, saying “sashimi! sashimi!” to catch your attention. They’ll weigh the fish and quote you a price, using a calculator if you don’t know Korean numbers.
This is definitely a place to negotiate. While the sellers aren’t actively ripping you off, they’ll probably pitch the opening price a bit higher than it should be, especially if your group are all foreigners. If you feel the price is too high, keep walking – but bear in mind that some seafood in the market does command a premium price, and will still be great value compared to what you’d pay back home. King crabs and lobster, in particular, are not cheap, so don’t expect to pick them up for nothing.
That said, a lot of the seafood here is pretty cheap. You can get two or three baby octopuses (octopi?) for 10,000 won, and a hefty fillet of fresh salmon will cost no more than 20-25,000 won, depending on the size and your bargaining skills. The salmon is mostly from Norway or Canada, not Korea, but it’s beautifully fresh and makes a good entry point for those who are wary of eating raw fish, or, like me, not fond of the chewy texture of raw white 회.
There’s also a lot of shrimp, which is much cheaper – it’s worth stocking up on some of this, especially if you are a sashimi-sceptic. Most of the shrimp comes from warmer waters, like Thailand or the Philippines.
And no trip to Noryangjin is complete without some live octopus – sannakji (산낙지). Pick up a couple of these bad boys – they are easy to spot in their little buckets, and very cheap. Don’t confuse them with their older brothers, below – the octopus that’s eaten live should be small.
Generally speaking, you will find the stallholders more willing to negotiate the more you buy. Rather than dropping their prices very far, they will usually try to offer you freebies (“service”) as part of the overall price – a few extra shrimp, free baby octopus, and so on. Pay for your fish once you are satisfied with what you are getting.
After you have got your purchases, you could just go home, but where is the fun in that? Far better to eat on-site at one of the restaurants that line the market on the second floor and basement levels. The fishmonger will gut, skin and slice up your fish in front of you, and plate it up on cute (and, if you’re lucky, fish-shaped) polystyrene platters with pickled onion and some fresh raw wasabi.
Representatives of local restaurants stalk the market floor, ready to take your fish downstairs for you – don’t worry about finding them, they will find you. If you have purchased an expensive fish you might want to hang around to make sure that what you get is what you bought – the switcheroo here, while not common, is not unknown. But once you’re satisfied, they will bring your fish to the restaurant for you, as well as some fish bones and pieces for making the awesome spicy soup that finishes a Korean fish meal – maeuntang (매운탕). Say “maeuntang” to the fishmonger and he will throw in some extra fish for the soup.
Phew! Now for the fun part – the eating! The restaurant will take away anything that needs cooking to cook it. Shrimp are generally grilled in their shells, crab boiled.
If you bought live octopus, it will come out in a small dish, chopped up but still wriggling. This is the moment to set your phone camera to video mode. Take the vinegary sauce dish that came with the sannakji, and pour it on. The octopus will go crazy.
After you’ve dismembered the crab comes the best part – they’ll make fried rice for you in the shell! Ask for bokkeumbap – they’ll ask you how many portions, which obviously depends on the size of the crab and how many of you there are. A few minutes later, it’ll come back to the table. It’s really good.
You pay the restaurant separately from the fish sellers, but if you splashed out on lots of pricey seafood, don’t fret – the service charge here is very reasonable, even if you had lots to drink (and if you didn’t, why not?). Then stagger out into the fresh air and get the smell of the ocean out of your clothes.
So there you have it, Noryangjin Fish Market. The place is open 24/7 – if you want to see the traders buying and selling on the market floor then you need to get here early morning, but otherwise, the vendors and the restaurants are open every day. Weekends can get very busy, which means bustling restaurants and possibly waiting for a table. But it is seldom quiet and never closed. In a city which really does never sleep, Noryangjin is one of the pulsing heartbeats. Go there before you leave. Really.
One of the glories of Korean food is that even when your meal is finished, it isn’t always finished. Koreans love dipping into communal pots bubbling with meat, vegetables and spicy broth, but liberating the last piece of chicken from the bowl isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Ask nicely, and the ajumma will reappear with two or three portions of rice, together with (sometimes) some extra veg, flakes of laver for flavour and texture, and even – as in the photo below – a little cheese. This is bokkeumbap (볶음밥), literally fried rice, and it’s a great way to finish off the meal and get the best out of your flavoursome main course. And, since it’ll only run you an extra 1,000-2,000 won per portion of rice, it’s a brilliant way of getting value out of your meal, too.
The bokkeumbap option is generally available where you are eating dishes from a central pot or stone cooking in the middle of the table; for example with dakdoritang (닭도리탕 – chicken stew in red pepper sauce) or gamjatang (감자탕 – pork and potato soup). You’ll also get to fry up some rice with the meat and kimchi scraps at some Korean BBQ restaurants, particularly those where you’re cooking your food on a metal or ceramic tray, rather than a grill. And of course frying up rice, cabbage and ddok (떡 – rice cakes) is the centrepiece of the perennial expat favourite, dakgalbi (닭갈비) – which is, by the way, absolutely the best drunk food you can get in Korea.
If you prefer noodles, as many do, you can throw some ramen in there instead, but I always feel that rice is the way to go. Try to order your rice when there is still some sauce and leftovers remaining in the pot. They’ll ask you how many portions of rice you want – depending on how many you are and how much good stuff is left in the bowl, two or three portions will usually be plenty for a group of four.
If your Korean is entry-level, no worries; just ask for “bokkeumbap” and, if you like, make a circular stir-frying motion over the dish, together with two or three fingers to indicate how many portions of rice you need. Pretty basic, but it always seems to work for me!