South Korea

Penis Fish and Skinned Eels

Jagalchi Fish Market: Home to special treatsJagalchi Fish Market: Home to special treatsSouth Korea may not initially appear at the top of the list when you compare its culture and tourist sites with the likes of the famed Louvre or the Coliseum. However, once you’ve had the opportunity to see one of the intricately detailed palaces or temples that are all over the country, or the artistically manufactured river that flows through the middle of Seoul, or the sexually provocative statues at Jeju Island’s sex-themed park Love Land, you begin to realize that this smallish country is a diamond in the rough. The list of cultural and tourist activities in Korea is surprisingly extensive, and I could go on and on about a number of them for thousands of words. However, one of my most memorable experiences has more to do with the food culture of this place than it does with its tourist attractions, and takes me the country’s second largest city, Busan.

I have been teaching English near South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul, for the past ten months. Like many other foreign English teachers living and working here, I can tell you that there is an abundance of activities available in and around Seoul for every taste and budget. It is nice, however, to get out of the capital and see a bit more of the country. One of the first things people do when heading out word is hop on the KTX – the fastest train in Korea – and take the three hour ride to Busan. Despite its size and number two spot behind Seoul, this metropolitan seaport seems to have a bit of a more laid back attitude than the capital. It also offers up an ample amount of tourist spots and cultural heritage sites, not to mention great beaches including the famed Haeundae, Shinsegae in Centum City which is the world’s largest department store, and Jagalchi, the country’s largest fish market. Korea's 'penis fish'. Appetizing?Korea's 'penis fish'. Appetizing?

My visit to Jagalchi fish market was most definitely a memorable portion of my four day trip to Busan; it was truly a sensory experience. I can still close my eyes and remember the intense smell of the endless variety of sea critters and creatures, the sounds of knives and blades being sharpened on grinding wheels, not to mention the intermittent chopping, and the feel of splashing on my feet from buckets of water being thrown into the market aisles. The latter may sound trivial, but when you see fish heads getting chopped off left and right and water constantly being thrown on the executed, you start to pay attention to the reddish tint of the water. But the choice is yours: you can either react obnoxiously to the obviously dirty fish water potentially rolling over your feet or you can catch yourself before you look like a true foreigner that can’t handle getting a little dirty; trying to focus on the brighter side of the experience would be the better option. Luckily, I chose the less dramatic path and distracted myself with the delicious aroma floating in the air; it helped me ignore what might have been covering my feet and walk toward that delicious smell, of fresh fish being fried on the street. 

The food couldn’t be any fresher at the Jagalchi market, because sometimes the catch of the day is still alive. Chopped up live octopus, still wriggling on your plate, is a ‘must try’ on the menu. Although live octopus may not sound appealing, the aroma triggered my appetite. That was until I ran into the ‘penis fish’. Don’t get me wrong; I’m fairly certain ‘penis fish’ isn’t the technical term for the sea creatures I saw piled on top of each other in the store’s tank, yet the resemblance there and suddenly my appetite wasn’t! Once I lost my impulse to try some new food, I was left with the taste of the ocean in my mouth and its smell in my nostrils. The taste of the salty ocean adjacent to the market seemed more potent that it would normally be standing next to an ocean. Despite decapitated heads and penis fish, however, I hadn’t yet experienced what would become my most unwavering memory, which plays like a movie over and over like a movie in my mind. The film stars the freshly skinned eels that proved to the patrons that what’s on the outside doesn’t really matter. I’ve heard of a chicken continuing to run around even though its head has been chopped off, but these eels were moving around as if their skin was still there. I didn’t stare at them too long, but it was long enough to ensure that the image of the squirming, eyeless, meat-like figures is burned into my memory forever. 

Ultimately, my experience could be described as a bizarre remix to the song Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid. Instead of Sebastian, the little red crab trying to show what the sea has to offer to Ariel, however, the ajumas, or older married women, relentlessly try to SELL what the sea has to offer. The ajumas are constantly advertising their collection of octopi, sting rays, king crab, sea urchins, snails, eels, turtles and other creatures I still don’t know the name of. However, even though The Little Mermaid’s version of the song was less morbid and certainly more attractive, I would still recommend visiting the Jagalchi fish market in Busan, South Korea.

About the Author

Laiken Dollente is an ESL teacher in Ansan, South Korea until August 2012. Prior to her fleeting residence in South Korea, she spent four months living in Arad, Romania playing professional basketball for Icim Arad. Traveling to bordering countries of Romania inspired her to continue traveling by way of teaching English. Native to the United States, Laiken attended college at the University of Portland in Oregon, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Sociology.

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 Full name: Republic of Korea

 Population: 48.86 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Seoul

 Largest city: Seoul

 Area: 99,720 sq.km. (38,502 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Korean, English widely  taught

 Major religions: Christian, Buddhist, Other

 Monetary unit: South Korean Won

 GDP per capita: US $31,700

 Internet domain: .kr

 International dialling code: +82

 Source: CIA World Factbook