Regan Schoultz is an NZME news service reporter based in Auckland.

Seoul: Bazaars of the bizarre

Lost among an array of colourful concoctions, Regan Schoultz is ready for adventure.
Noryangjin fish market. Photo / Regan Schoultz
Noryangjin fish market. Photo / Regan Schoultz

The smell of fish was pungent.

It wafted towards us as we approached the Noryangjin fish market in the south of Seoul, leaving us in no doubt we were headed in the right direction.

The market is one of many scattered across South Korea's capital - a city humming with activity and life - and a drawcard for locals and tourists.

Entering a dark warehouse down a flight of dodgy stairs we reached out destination. It was a complete assault on the senses - the smell, the sights and the sounds.

Tanks of fish, crabs, eels, octopus and every sea creature under the waves were lined up in rows and rows on small tables outside the hundreds of stalls filling the building.

Laid out at the front were neatly arranged rows of squid, oysters, prawns and stingray.

Thousands of yellow bulbs hanging over head lent a surreal yellow glow to the spectacle.

Stopping to inspect some of the first stalls, I and my two companions from Hong Kong were immediately surrounded by eager fish sellers trying to convince us to buy their products.

My companions bartered in Chinese. I understood none of it so decided to take photos of the sights instead- and I was in photography heaven. So many interesting things happening at a rapid pace around me. Just the sheer volume and variety of fish was fascinating.

Crowds merged around stalls where more bartering was taking place. Each stall owner seemed to selling very similar things to their neighbours yet each was convinced they had a unique offering. The warehouse was alive with chatter and noise.

Tonjin markets are drawcards for tourists to Seoul. Photo / Regan Schoultz
Tonjin markets are drawcards for tourists to Seoul. Photo / Regan Schoultz


Then it was time to try the products. But how to choose when the pricing and product names are all in Korean and the spoken languages are Korean and Chinese? By pointing of course.

We picked two baby octopus, three abalone and four shellfish for $32 - quite expensive compared to normal food prices in Seoul.

I wasn't sure if the price was especially high because we were clearly tourists, but we were hustled into a small restaurant up a flight of narrow stairs with our purchases.

It was one of many above the markets earning their keep by cooking the products people bought below.

The businesses worked in unison, each relying on the others to draw in the customers.

Entering the restaurant we were asked to take off our shoes - a cultural norm in South Korea.

We were then seated at a low table with flat cushions for seats.

Trying to sit cross-legged while wearing multiple layers of pants due to the cold weather outside was extremely tough. Once you think you are in a comfortable position then you suddenly can't feel your legs and your feet become cushions for pins and needles.

Couples and friends sat at the tables around us, out for a meal together.

The waitress delivered sliced garlic, thick slices of green chilli and a strange-looking sauce to our table without speaking a word.

One by one our seafood began arriving at the table sliced, diced and ready to eat - but not cooked. All the seafood we were to be eating was served raw, as sashimi.

The first to arrive was the baby octopus - cubed but still clinging for dear life on to the plate.

It was impossible to use chopsticks and the squirming, wiggling slices of octopus refused to be picked up. I resorted to using a spoon, but even with the spoon, the suction cups on the tentacles were tough to pry off the serving plate.

Octopus is a bizarre sensation in the mouth. It is chewy and slimy and sticks to the teeth. However, if you add a dash of soy sauce, which seems to make everything taste better, it is not all bad.

In a different part of town, the experience provided by the Tonjin markets was almost a polar opposite.

In the neighbourhood of Seochon, which means "Western Village", the market is home to an alley of small eateries and stalls cooking bizarre and colourful concoctions, from dumplings, rice cakes and fish patties to raw seaweed.

Small shops selling shoes, decorations and Chinese-made cheap plastic things break up the rows of food vendors. And it is packed with people and children each hustling to different stalls to try the culinary delights.

A popular stop is the Dosirak Cafe - or the Lunchbox Cafe - where $6 will get you 12 tokens and a tray you can then use at the market below to trade for food.

As usual the cafe was packed when my friend and I arrived, keen to take our taste buds on a journey. Eagerly we grabbed our trays and formed a plan to pick different things and then share.

On his plate: an array of rice-based foods and fried goods. On mine: dumplings and tteokbokki - a rice cake stir-fried in oil with a special spicy sauce, which was a particular delicacy of the market.

Noryangjin fish market. Photo / Regan Shoultz
Noryangjin fish market. Photo / Regan Shoultz


To wash down the food we drank cheese coffee - creamy, rich and surprisingly sweet.

Seoul is known for its shopping so it was only appropriate to seek out clothing market.

And we found one just a 40-minute subway ride into Myeong-dong, one of the most popular shopping districts in the city; hundreds of clothing stalls sitting side by side on the streets.

They were offering jackets, scarves, beanies - anything to combat the cold was popular. The market was cheap and the quality of clothes good.

It proved hard not to get lost while wandering the streets, which intertwined endlessly with one another, roping back and forth across the district.

The market was alive with people, hundreds moving through the street stopping to look at the goods on offer. And no one seemed bothered by the occasional smell of sewage that wafted on the wind.

Under the yellow street lights, and the blinding white and coloured lights of the neon signs, it could almost have passed for day time.

And, like each of Seoul's markets, it was an adventure.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Korean Air flies from Auckland to Seoul, South Korea.
koreanair.com

ONLINE
english.visitkorea.or.kr

- NZ Herald

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