Most Korean food, no matter what you order, comes with a selection of small side dishes, mostly pickles. The most important of these is chili-pickled cabbage, Kimchi, which is not only a foodstuff, but an icon of national pride and identification. Households were (and sometimes still are) judged by the quality of their Kimchi, and no Korean meal can do without it. Along with it, a variety of pickles are served, some hot and spicy, others sweet and sour and some of them of indescribable taste: radish, morning glory, mushrooms and seaweed being the most common, you'll also find seafood, potatoes, tofu and grape leaves.
Korean mains seem like a perfect mixture of Japanese and Chinese cuisine: strong and distinct tastes, but without obscuring the natural flavour. Whether it's Kimbap (Korea's version of Sushi), Bibimbap (a rice stew with lots of meats and vegetables, comes still bubbling in an earthen pot), Pajeon (leek pancakes) or the expertly marinated barbeque beef (gets rolled into salad leaves), it's just amazingly delicious. If you haven't been to a Korean restaurant, I command you to do so now.
Armed with all my culinary excitement I went to Busan's Jagalchi fish market. The second-biggest town in South Korea, Busan is famed for its seafood, and Jagalchi is the place to go if you want the best the ocean has to offer.
As I wander along the countless stalls with their goods on display, among the staple fare of fish, squid and shrimp, I encounter some strange specimen of marine creatures offered up for food: giant orange snails, blood-red winding worms, yellow anemones resembling hearts and writhing penis maggots.
After initial curioisty, I turn my attention to one of the many seafood restaurants, eager to delectate myself on a multitude of freshly caught marine produce. When I am offered an "assorted seafood platter", my palate wets with dreams of grilled snappers and barbequed lobsters, and I decide to splash and spent 20 pounds to order.
|Snail on a toothpick|
Let me introduce you to what I call the "Wriggle Plate". Everything you see on there is still alive, which makes it wriggle. And because everything on it wriggles, it will make you wriggle. And not with excitement. While I try to not meet the waitress' happy look with an equal amount of despair in mine, my mind says goodbye to grilled fish and lobster. This is the main dish, and it has everything on it I thought was alien in all the little streetside basins before.
I turn my attention to the octopus, being the most familiar. It shifts around on its little salad leaf, trying to make a final escape, before the waitress hacks it to little pieces on the spot. Unfortunately, that does not stop it from moving. I look at its grey tentacle bits wobble aimlessly, fueled by their owner's last wish to ever see the open sea again. Nausea rises in my throat like adrenaline in a championship contender. I braved the snail, and up went the difficulty level. Using the same tactics as before, I snatch a writhing tentacle with my chopsticks and stick it in my mouth, to swallow it as quickly as I can. But the octopus' undead remains do not give up without a fight. It's suckers find grip between my cheek and my maulers, refusing attempts to swallow it whole, forcing me to catch a sucker with my tongue and maneuver it so it is chewable. I bite on it several times, until I'm sure it's dead. Is it better than cooked octopus? No, but it sure makes me a hell lot more uncomfortable.
Torn between disgust and curiousity, I look at the other contents of my plate. Abalone, I've heard of them. Supposed to be good, and has stopped moving. I pick it up and dip it into a clear sesame sauce. It doesn't like that, and its survival instinct revives as it spurts darkish liquid into the sauce, turning it into an unhealthy looking flaky grey oil. Once again I feel nausea rise, and I put it back on the plate, in hopes it will stop moving. It doesn't and instead tries to make its way back into the nice mother-of-pearl shell it came from. I can't blame it, being thrown into sesame sauce is probably a horrible experience. I cannot help but sympathize, I really want to go home, too. I skip the tiny blood-red eels that by now have scattered themselves accros the remaining food. I cast one last glance at the penis worms and the sea cucumber before I leave some money and sneakily head out of the restaurant. I buy myself a Coca Cola, in hopes to insure that everything I ate would indeed be dead and not return at night to plague my dreams. With the realization that I don't have to try everything I return home, looking for a burger joint.
|Dried fish vendor|
|Fish vendors are always women|
|Dried fish for side dishes or sprinkling over dishes|
|Anchored fishing fleet|
|Don't ask me what they are, I call them penis worms|