soju sunrise

Foreigner’s guide to Noryangjin Fish Market

korean food basics | February 10, 2015 | By

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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.

IMG_0896One more flight down will take you to the trading floor itself.

IMG_0229Noryangjin 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.

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IMG_0957Korean people generally come here for the freshest “hwe” (), 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.

IMG_4348_2This 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.

IMG_0920That 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 .

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.

IMG_0914And 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.

IMG_0901Generally 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.

IMG_4362_2After 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.

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IMG_0973Representatives 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.

IMG_4179The hwe will be put at the table along with some additional wasabi (add soy to the bowl to use as a dipping sauce), some garlicky ssamjang, green chili and garlic, and lettuce leaves.

IMG_4165IMG_0978Make sure to order lots of soju to wash it down! This is not the place to skimp, it’s ajosshi central – lots of people pounding back the so-mek (soju and beer). Do likewise.

IMG_4181If 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.

IMG_4167Now eat! The squiggling of the tentacles may put you off, but the taste is pretty harmless and neutral. Try at least one piece – serious Bourdain-style kudos with the folks back home.

IMG_4168If you brought some king crab, they’ll bring it out with some scissors to cut it up – cue pieces of shell flying everywhere. Don’t be shy – get snapping!

IMG_4364After 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.

IMG_4369_2If you want maeuntang, ask for it now. It’ll come out at the end of the meal on gas burners, spicy and warming. Have it with some rice (gongibap) to fill you up and soak up the soju.

IMG_4182IMG_0257You 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.

IMG_0949So 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.

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