Tuesday, July 5, 2016

To Know a Town, Know Its Fish Market

Bobby was the first person I met in Korea. He sold flounder and baby octopus at the fish market. In Dubai, my first acquaintance was the immigrant cook who made me a breakfast of South Indian fish curry. If you want to understand daily life in an alien place — to meet the people who give a city its rhythms — go straight to the fish market.

As a food and travel writer, the first thing I do whenever I arrive in a new place is hit the fish market. In a world where entire countries have altered their streets and customs to attract moneyed tourists, fish markets — and the people who work there, hauling carcasses in the wee hours — remain relatively authentic. No other single site offers such a thorough orientation to a people, an economy, and a culture. Except for a few of the biggest (Tokyo’s Tsukiji or Seattle’s Pike Place), these aren’t marketed as tourist attractions. Yet for travelers looking to taste local delicacies — Hawaiian limpets called opihi, Seattle’s famous salmon, or baby octopus in Korea still wriggling around on the plate — seafood markets offer a no-frills place to find not only the food, but the life of a city.

Fish markets rarely compete with palaces or parks in the mind of the average tourist — you’re unlikely to frame a photograph of mollusks the way you’d frame a photo of Westminster Abbey; you’re unlikely to Instagram your fish congee for breakfast at Tekka Market in Singapore the way one might a croissant in a Paris cafĂ©. Yet these markets are still visual feasts. These are the scenes that remain in my mind after travel: Stall after stall of iridescent stock in Negombo or simply laid on a tarp in Passikudah (both in Sri Lanka); silver fish stacked over sparkling ice in Seoul, South Korea; countless crabs, climbing upward, claws akimbo, in Dubai’s Deira Fish Souk.

Everywhere in the world, fish markets fill up before dawn with working-class people hustling to make a living through a fragile and expensive commodity. Fish markets are both a reflection of the values and economy of a place, and a microcosm of the city itself.

Take Noryangjin, Seoul’s largest fish market, where tuna auctions wrap by 6:30 a.m. and workers hustle to pack up the fish that’s been sold. Tables overflow with large carcasses, sorted by type, down the center of the room.

Like the rest of Seoul, Noryangjin teems with people and fast-moving hand-carts that brush by brisk walkers. I met Bobby there along a series of stalls where smaller tanks showcase live fish. Bobby overheard me speaking in English and came over to talk. This was common in Korea, to find offers of help and hospitality proffered from within the chaos of the street. The same people who jumble against you as you’re packed into the a Seoul subway car will stop everything on the street and offer directions if you so much as glance at a map.

After years living abroad — in Texas, of all places — Bobby returned to his home country of Korea, where he now ran this two-square-foot fish stall. “What kind of fish do you want?” he asked, offering to translate for other vendors if he didn’t have it. The kitchens that line Noryangjin’s outer aisles are BYOF: bring your own fish. I bought a flounder and a baby octopus, and he followed me to the restaurant behind his stall to translate my preparation requests to the chef.

Fish markets serve the best breakfasts. While I waited for my platter of sashimi, fish head-and-skeleton soup, and still-twitching raw baby octopus, I surveyed the room. A table of 20-somethings all dove from their seats to catch their friend as she swayed with drunkenness. A young couple, too, seemed to be soaking up booze. A table of men still wearing waterproof overalls from their night shift gathered over what was, for them, dinner. They seemed excited to see a visitor in the market and fed me bites of their food, including abalone — which tastes like an oyster, except more so: chewier, saltier, sweeter, and just a bit buttery. I was, possibly, the only person starting their day, rather than ending it.

by Naomi Tomky, Pacific Standard | Read more:
Image:Dan Kitwood /Getty Images