Samstag, 18. Juni 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXII - Korea: The Mystery Meat Tour (Unexpectedly) Continues


I love Korean food. Its crisp, strong flavours. It's bubbly hotness and its cold pickles. And Korean barbeque is simply amazing. So with all my expectations of great food I threw myself into culinary Korean adventures...and found that Minahasan cuisine should not be my last encounter with obscure foodstuffs. But let me water your mouth first with some Korean staples.

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.


Now that you have an idea of my predisposition, let me tell you about my fish market visit.

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.
First, a collection of side dishes arrives, most of it well known to me, apart from that the shrimps came with little underwater snails. Observing my quizzical look, the waitress shows me how to pluck them out of their little houses by help of a toothpick and gives me an encouraging smile. I decide to go for the shrimps first. When I have had a bit of everything on the table, my eyes start wandering to the collection of little mollusces that lie beside the shrimps. I take a deep breath. The french eat them, I tell myself, albeit fried and in garlic sauce, and yet they all live. Besides, I am an adventurous traveler, my personal pride and the social value of the experience demand that I try them. So I take the toothpick and heroically lance it into the curly shell to forcefully evict its deceased inhabitant. I look at it briefly, then shove it in my mouth before I get second thoughts about its appearance.

Snail on a toothpick

To my surprise, the taste is relatively pleasant: slightly nutty, with the texture of squid. Not great, but acceptable. Proud of my culinary bravery, I try another one. Acquiring new tastes, not being snobby, that's what you travel for, right? Unfortunately,  this one is awful. Squishy with a hint of intestine, leaving some gravely residue on my tongue. Well, they can't all be good, I console myself.. I wait for the next course. Wait for some grilled mackerel in soy sauce. Chili stew with prawns. Hell, I would happy with fried noodles with mussels and squid. Instead, the waitress brings me this:

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.

Jagalchi mascots

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

1 Kommentar:

  1. How did the octopus moved if it's already in pieces? I have to congratulate you for your braveness though. I'm not sure I would have even manged the snail.