Seoul's Most Popular Fish Markets
Updated: Apr 4
Sliced Sashimi, Drunk Ahjussis and Wriggling Octopi
This past weekend, I went for an experience unique to me. While eating at a fish market is fairly common in Korea, this kind of experience isn't widely available in the US. Back in Rhode Island, only the top-tier and coastal restaurants boast a fresh-catch menu. The restaurants are strategically planted next to the water so patrons wearing Sperry's and pastel shorts can dock their boats as if it were a parking lot. The menus are studded with lobster rolls, oysters on the shell and clam soups, all labelled with the elusive, mysterious and anxiety-inducing market price.
Where I'm from, fresh seafood is unattainable for most and elitist for all. A club that ensures that you have to pay to play.
Since coming to Korea, I've been on an everlasting hunt for the local experience. Skirting past swanky restaurants in Gangnam and opting for the hidden joints that stud the inside of alleyways. These places are the within the forgotten neighborhoods of Seoul. While this city gets gentrified faster than you can say "controlled rent," some sections got left in the dust. In between sky scrapers are the meandering alleys of decades long past. There are a mix of smells: cigarette smoke from the patrons taking a meal half-time, bitter and savory from fermented foods and meat frying together and just the slighted undertone of sewage. Yep, that's a part of Seoul as well, you get used to it.
Truthfully, these places are the most fun. First off, shop owners are absolutely shocked to see a foreigner and usually thrilled to share a piece of their culture with you. You will try some of the most unique and delicious foods, leave the place stuffed and maybe spend $8 for the whole thing. Second, what's the point of coming to a different country if you intend to eat only pasta and grilled chicken?
When I first walked into Mapo Agricultural and Marine Products (MAMP), I was looking for that same, local magic. It didn't disappoint.
Photos from Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul
Where Noryangjin is expansive, sprawling and filled with tens of different sellers, MAMP compares as a relaxed atmosphere. The sellers tell you their prices, discuss the quality and are open to a bit of haggling. There's maybe three or four of them willing to negotiate a sale but mostly, they stood around in circles chatting with one another. I got the sense that their selling style was more of a suggestion.
My friend and I went in a took a lap around the sellers, men and women in rubber boots and overalls. Some of them were young a fresh, sons helping out the family business. Others wore the faces of Hemmenway-esque fishermen, skin rigid and lined by harsh, salted winds. Glistening shell fish piled up in mounds, spilling over into neighboring water tanks. Squid pressed watering behind with their tentacles and darted from one side of the tanks to the other. Huge fish of all varieties and in different stages of being gutted lay on ice.
We picked a few kilograms of shellfish, shrimp and four crabs. Then we ordered sliced sashimi. The crabs' claws moved languidly as they were tossed into a plastic basket. The rest of the shellfish weighed down the inside of a transparent bag. Someone nearby ordered live octopus, which twisted and wriggled furiously in the grasp of the seller's gloved hands. My friend turned to me and said, "now we go upstairs."
Photos from Mapo Agriculture and Marine Products, Seoul
As I followed, I turned one more time to watch the seller take a cleaver down and chop the still-moving tentacles off of the octopus.
In the states, it's not common to pick out your meal from a tank of live creatures and much less to look on as the seller kills the creature. I'd say most westerners (including myself) get a bit squeamish when it comes to this aspect of eating, which is addressing the life our food had at one point. We usually have a clear separation between living things and what we ingest and usually don't blur the lines between the two things.
Couldn't the seller take the octopus around the back and spare the customer the gory details of their lunch? When I asked my friend about this, he seemed surprised. "Well, why not?" he questioned, "that's how you know it's fresh."
I couldn't argue with that. The truth is, being squeamish about the sight doesn't make us carnivores immune to the reality of food. My friend has a different perspective on food, one that doesn't hide behind a veil of ignorance. I thought more about this as we passed through the swinging glass door.
Where Noriyangjin is in the center of the city and accessible to all with a subway card, MAPA seems reserved just for locals. We walked up a dark, zigzagging stairway lined entirely in floral wallpaper. Dirty mirrors reflected our distorted images. I felt like I was walking a flight of stairs that would take me to a past era as if the doors would swing open into 1978.
Each table had a handwritten sign. "SELF SERVE," they read in all caps. It meant we had to get our own plates of kimchi and lettuce. We were greeted by an older woman who had dyed her hair black with a stark contrast of grey roots growing long. We handed our live crabs and shellfish to her. Once we sat down, she brought over a bottle of soju, two bowls of rice and reminded us of the self serve requirement. We agreed and tore the plastic wrapping from our first course: sashimi.
The meat was butter soft. We dipped it in bowls of soy sauce and wasabi while clinking our shot glasses. "Chung Ha," he said, "is smoother than soju. It's perfect for sashimi." And I couldn't agree more. The faintest bite from alcohol and mild sweetness coated our tongues. Slightly floral and cooling. We reminisced on the sweet and thick flavors of the drink and sashimi, but only for a short while until the waitress came with a massive plate piled with steaming shellfish.
We popped hot clams into our mouths and sucked the meat out of the crab legs. We scooped spoonfuls of rice and soy sauce into the empty shell and ate generous mouthfuls of rice saturated in the crab's savory juices. We wrapped sauce-dipped clams in lettuce rolls and stuffed them into our mouths like Christmas presents down a chimney. We littered the table with napkins upon napkins.
Then, one bottle of chung ha became three and we finished our meal with spicy fish-head soup. It came to our table in a cauldron-like bowl. Red stained broth bubbled over the edges as we talked about the upcoming Korean presidential election. How is it that politics seem the same all over the world? Despite our differences, we all have the same gripes about the same old men running our countries (into the ground).
The spicy broth made our noses run but we continued on with conversation, soup, rice and chung ha, in one variation or another of that order. I looked around and noticed that my friend and I were the youngest people there. By then, the dinner rush had begun and nearly all the tables were occupied with groups and scattered with geriatric men who nursed their headaches from an earlier buzz.
My friend seemed to notice this. "This isn't really a place people our age go to anymore. I mean-" waving their hand around to signal the room, which explained the next statement "-imagine coming here for a date?"
Patrons around us drank and slammed their cups down on the table, performing the ahjussi (romanized word for older man) ritual of giving a throaty "AHHHHHHH," after a particularly satisfying gulp of soju. They yelled about loses and wins at the race tracks. Red faced and spent, some rested their heads against the wall next to them.
My rendition of the classic "AHHH" performed by old men/ahjussis
...Perhaps this place couldn't exist in the posher areas of town. It likely wasn't the place someone would drive to with their Audi, BMW or Mercedes and park in the dingy lot out front. And certainly not a place to impress your date. Still, I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss, like I was experiencing a side of Korea that might be gone in a decade or two.
With the closure of Seoul's oldest movie theater, a historic site in the Jongno area, over the summer, I think my time to experience these places is limited. The question is, how much time exactly?