I stared down at the corpse, wondering exactly how I was going to get out of this one. It was too late to run; I’d already made myself memorable. My options were fading. And this fish wasn’t getting any less dead.
Flashback to the innocuous start: me at a loose end in Busan for the day. It was hot and summery, but instead of heading to the beach like a normal person I decided to visit Jagalchi Fish Market. My motive in this remains unclear: I’m not really a fish person, and I never cook it at home (aside from that squid incident). But as South Korea’s largest seafood market in its largest port, Jagalchi felt like one of those experiences you ought to have. Anyway, it looked pretty cool in Black Panther.*
Jagalchi is a live fish market, offering customers the freshest lunch in town. The warehouse-sized building is divided into stalls like a craft fair, each stand a myriad of waterfalls from the constantly refreshing tanks. Water lapped at my sandals as I looked over the aquarium of options, trying to imagine any of them as delicious.
I grew up landlocked in the American Midwest so I can’t speak with authority, but I’m pretty sure the contents of those tanks were not of this earth. There were spiny things and squishy things, some bizarrely obscene and others namelessly disturbing. I skittered past skirt-fluttering cuttlefish and luridly swollen sea cucumbers, dodged a slithering box of freshly skinned eels, nearly tripped over a pile of what appeared to be human hearts. I don’t know why people always look to the sky in search of alien life – have you seen what’s living in our water?
I tried to appear discerning as I pinballed between stalls, but I probably looked as horrified as I felt. It wasn’t just the fear that whatever I chose would come bursting out of my chest later, but the terrible obligation of sentencing one of these thingummies to death. I’m a fairly callous meat eater, but I’d never bumped off my own entrée before. Sure, the fishmonger would do the actual dirty work, but morally speaking it was my finger on the trigger.
I passed a king crab pulling itself halfheartedly from a box. It paused and regarded me with one claw raised to eye level in a gladiatorial salute. We who are about to die…
I lurched away, nearly falling into the tanks behind me.
“Hi there.” A young guy emerged from behind the stand. His perfect American English was paired with surfer hair and a laidback smile. “What can I get you?”
I hesitated, trying to regain my cool. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing randomly to a muddy bathmat laying in a tub near my feet.
“That’s a flat fish,” he said. “It’s great grilled or as sashimi.”
Fortunately, it was also enormous. “Well, there’s just one of me, so…”
He pointed out a box of smaller bathmats. “These are a good size for one person,” he flashed a smile. “They’re really delicious.”
“I’m sure they are,” I demurred, backing ever doorward. “But, well, it’s a bit early for lunch yet.”
He handed me a card with his booth number on it. “Come back when you’re hungry.”
I’m not sure which of us was more surprised when I reappeared an hour later, the card worried and bent in my fingers.
“Give me a moment,” he called out, clearly afraid I’d have second thoughts and run away. But I had committed. I was going to have a Cultural Experience. When in Rome, I’d remonstrated myself in a pep talk behind the building, eat the damn fish.
I waited while he offered a gigantic crab to an older Korean couple. They looked it over with pursed lips, shaking their heads. He hauled out another, its spidery legs dancing just above the ground. The couple nodded and turned their attention to a tank of black fish.
“Just a minute,” he called to me again as he wrestled their selection—a fish as long as my arm—to a counter behind the tanks. Up went a cleaver. Whack. He struck its head with the flat of the blade. The fish froze, mouth gaping. The vender flipped the knife over in his hand. Chonk. The head rolled away.
“Ok, what are you hungry for?” he asked, wiping his gloves on his apron.
“I’ll try the flat fish.”
I felt like could handle a fish; fish was normal. Then he yanked one from the tank and I jumped. It looked like a normal fish flipped 90 degrees on its side, and had a freaky, deconstructed Picasso face. One large eye stared out from the usual location, but a second smaller eye was squished alongside its misplaced mouth. Apparently a flat fish’s second eye wanders around the body as it grows, sometimes settling on the upfacing side, sometimes down. I’m telling you, these things are aliens.
My fish looked pathetically small on the chopping block. The vender didn’t even bother knocking out. A few knife slits in the head and it was tossed into a bucket. Then the bucket and I were delivered to a middle-aged woman in a burger-stand hat, apron, and pearls. She crooned soothingly in Korean as she led me upstairs, “Delicious. Veeeery delicious. When it’s grilled it will be veeery nice.”
The second floor held the dining area, with rows plastic tables covered in filmy white garbage bags. She pointed me to an empty seat and disappeared with the fish I’d offed.
Twenty minutes later it was back, looking way more appealing than it had downstairs. The exterior was grilled crispy and golden over the snowy white meat. But my first thought was how big it had become. It filled the platter in three giant hunks, each a meal in themselves. How had I ever thought this was a one-person fish? How was I possibly going to finish it now?
I dug in with chopsticks. The meat was firm like tofu and fell easily from the ribs. Gingerly, I tried a bite. No bones. Nice and moist. It tasted like, well, fish. Nothing particularly exciting. Nothing, in fact, that made me want to eat more. I’d thought choosing the fish was the hard part, but now realized I was in for a very long haul.
I did my best. I dunked it in soy sauce, daubed it with wasabi, layered it with pickled ginger and kimchi. I worked my way doggedly through a third of that fish before I could go no further. Vanquished, I looked around the room for another solution.
The waitress was vigilant and clearly felt some measure of personal responsibility for me, the misplaced foreigner. If I tried to sneak out I was sure to be chased down in concern and confusion. The lunch rush was thinning. At a nearby table, a trio of elderly men patted their bellies and checked if there was any makgeolli left in the bottle before heading for the door. I watched one divide the final splash between his friends’ glasses, and an idea began to prickle at the back of my mind.
Eating is a social pastime in Korea, and food is always shared. Even the smallest snack will be divided among those present, to the point where each person is presented with a single orange pip. And there’s no turning it down either. From my own observations, I’d say declining food is less socially acceptable than farting in the office.
Just then a young family sat down on my left: mom, dad, and two toddling boys, one of whom, praise be, was a picky eater.
He turned up his nose at the sashimi and whined hangrily when a plate of grilled tiger shrimp arrived. His parents sighed and began a thankless routine of “just try one little bite.”
I saw my moment.
“Excuse me,” I said in my best Korean. “Would you like some fish? I have so much.” I gestured to my platter.
Mom and dad exchanged glances. “Thank you.” Dad scooped up a piece and put it in front of their fussing son, who gradually settled down to gnaw.
Problem solved. I decided to stick around a few more minutes for appearances, then duck out and grab the bill when the waitress was at the furthest point of her circuit.
The family’s third course hit their table just as I was edging off the bench: a bubbling cauldron of shellfish stew. The mom leaned across to me with a concerned expression.
“Are you eating alone?”
“Yes,” I admitted, heart fluttering at where this admission might lead.
Sure enough, she ladled out a heaping portion of shellfish and passed it my way. “Please,” she said kindly, “share some of our stew.”
*Though as far as I know, there are no glamorous crime dens hiding behind Jagalchi’s stalls.
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