At some point it sounded like a good idea. Having laid down to rest in a comfortable hotel bed only hours before, and with a few snooze cycles already jarring me from my heavy slumber, I began to question my previous logic. “Let’s go check out a fish market in town, and let’s go really early to avoid the crowds and catch the action at its peak,” I had proposed the evening before.
Five o’clock. Pitch black outside, and we were dragging ourselves out of a warm bed, clumsily bundling up in preparation for the chill of a pre-dawn January morning. And in Seoul, that means about 15 degrees F. “Whose bright idea was this again?”
A twenty minute or so cab ride from our hotel brought us to Garak Shijang, a produce and fish market in the neighborhood of Garak-dong. Weaving between white refrigerated trucks, a swarm of mopeds, and a flurry of activity, our driver drops us off close to the harsh fluorescent glow of the covered market.
At this hour it’s primarily commercial business. That meant constantly watching our backs to dodge mopeds, bicycles, and hurried couriers with hand trucks that whizzed through the narrow aisles. As we navigated through the labyrinth of vendors, we took deliberate steps to avoid slipping on the perpetually slick and puddled walkways. Our eyes widened from stall to stall and around ever corner; everything you could imagine (and plenty that you couldn’t) was available freshly-caught, still squirming or splashing, frozen, dried, or marinated. Literally everything under the sea.
After window shopping and exploring what the market had to offer, it was time to make a few purchases. We backtracked to a vendor we had passed earlier, and picked a couple of items some people would find odd for any meal, let alone for breakfast. A few live baby octopuses, a whole flounder, and a handful of sea squirts thrown in for for good measure. Our monger makes quick work of the flounder and hands off the neatly filleted pieces along with our other delicacies to another person. We follow in brisk pursuit as our runner leads us to a restaurant in a separate building adjacent to the market. For the price of rice and some side dishes (and alcohol if you so desire) , the restaurant will prepare your market purchases and provide you with a warm, clean place in which to partake.
Within a few minutes the dishes start coming out. The flounder is simply sliced and eaten as you’d like: sashimi-style or wrapped in a perilla leaf with rice and a little chili. The octopus, on the other hand, is a bit macabre. Snipped up with a pair of scissors and seasoned with sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a pinch of salt, the dismembered pieces wriggle like worms on a plate. Once in your mouth, the little suction cups try their darnest to stick to everything. It’s the oddest sensation, but not as disgusting as you might think. Once the giggles and the novelty subside, the taste of the octopus is surprisingly neutral, picking up the flavors of what it’s seasoned with.
We head outside just as dawn breaks, our bodies warmed and bellies filled. Not a typical way to start the morning, but man, that was a brilliant idea.