By Alec Siegel
Jigalchi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea
Whipping winds make the brine and fish stench all the more pungent.
We are strolling the sea-splashed alleyways of Jagalchi fish market, on Nampo Port, in the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula and second most populous city, Busan.
Middle-aged women flank both sides of us, yelling, snapping, smiling, frowning. They aggressively hawk their wares, outdoing each other out of necessity. They sell the same things after all, all offer identical prices. How to choose one over the other?
Mackerels thrash in tanks the size of a shoebox. Immobile crabs in slightly larger tanks.Octopi nestle in pastel colored buckets, looking like soaking up the sun. Stingrays hang on hooks-stretched dry-more fossil than flesh.
But everything is fresh here, as fresh as it gets. One whiff tells you that much. It’s overwhelming to stroll Jagalchi’s rows of fish stalls, especially during a mini monsoon. It’s freezing, the wind-chill brutal.
The women and the stalls they operate offer more than a freshly caught fried fish dinner; they offer refuge from the gales. Merchant and customer alike huddle around heat lamps, puffing on their hands in between sips of soju (Korean rice liquor).
We walk on, sandwiched by pleas.
“Sir! Sir! fish! Over here! Cheap!”
One lady finally manages to catch our attention. Perhaps it was her force, perhaps it was our frostbitten exhaustion. Whatever the reason, she reeled us in. Unlike the fish desperately flopping around in her tanks, we happily settled in back of the adjacent restaurant to thaw and refuel.
It’s a new world. I can move my appendages. I can feel my face. I can laugh without fear of a permanent smile. But that’s nearly what happens when our meal hits the table.
A fish fried whole which, most likely, was searching for a meal of its own only hours before in the East China Sea, split in half, frowning. A hot bowl of soup. Banchan-small side dishes, usually an array of pickled vegetables. And to round things out: A cold Coke in a glass bottle.
All around us as we eat, Koreans banter and laugh, picking through steaming hot plates of sea creatures and vegetables. A newscaster drones on a small television set in the back. The woman who baited us shuffles from tables on the inside to potential customers out. They should bite. It’s warm in here.
We reluctantly finish eating. As I push in my chair, steeling myself for the cold that awaits, I make eye contact with a man seated alone behind me.
His eyes are icy blue, his fingernails rusted yellow, his hands smudged in black grease. A Russian seaman. (Judging by the language he attempted to communicate with and the fact that Nampo Port is home to a sizeable diaspora of Russian ship workers). On the table in front of him: the same spread I had eaten minutes before, only a bottle of soju in place of a Coke.
He smiles and speaks, motioning to the contents on the table.
His words are foreign to me, but I know what he is trying to say.