Noryangjin Fish Market (Or, What It Was Like Eating Live Octopus)

How do you feel about live octopus? Can you imagine it wriggling on your plate? Coming from the American Midwest, people are generally suspicious of seafood. I think about my dad in these instances growing up in rural central Illinois; he frequently suggests that a good meal consists of steak, potatoes, and corn, and that’s about it. Much of America is inland, after all, and not near a body of water. I, on the other hand, love seafood. I think sushi is delicious. It has become more popular in the states in recent years as well. But generally, Americans just don’t eat much fish for some reason.

Still, when we think about seafood, we typically think of tilapia, salmon, or maybe shrimp. We might eat calamari but that’s probably easier because we disguise that it is actually squid. For many Americans, some of these more exotic food fares just seem strange or out of place in their usual diet.

Fresh Seafood Is Everywhere in South Korea

But in South Korea, seafood (and I mean fresh seafood!) is everywhere. Food vendors sell tteokbokki (soft rice cake, fish cake, and gochujang) and odaeng (fish cakes with broth) wherever you look. Many recipes involve some type of fish broth as a base. Some recipes include small cooked octopuses, whole, bobbing among the vegetables and rice cakes, ready for you to eat in one bite. And more still, a delicious and salty snack wouldn’t consist of beef jerky but rather a type of squid jerky still conveniently in the shape of a squid.

So maybe it won’t surprise you to know that Koreans typically don’t have the same dispositions toward fish, even raw fish, as most Americans. And when my students first began telling me about Noryangjin, the largest and oldest fish market in Korea, I knew I had to go. I set up some plans with some of my former adult students to hit the stalls of Noryangjin and sample the infamous live octopus (called “sannakji”) and then told Danny of our plans that weekend.

To say he was a bit on edge about eating live octopus is an understatement, but hey, when you’re in Korea, right? Even with his reticence, I was happy to see how quickly I convinced him that this could be an interesting experience, if not for the taste then at least for the story!

Put on Your Snorkel: We’re at Noryangjin Fish Market

Fast-forward. Getting to the market from the station is a bit of work. (I was happy to have found my students because one of them guided the way and made it much easier.) With every step, the pungent smell of fish clarified until it dripped off the wall, and when we finally stepped out of a stairwell to overlook 400+ vendors, we knew we were there.

The old Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul
Look at how far that goes!

The market itself has a messy charm about it. On the second floor of the old market, many offices are boarded up with graffiti scrawled over the walls and doors (which is quite uncommon to see in Korea). On the main floor, you have hundreds of people selling all sorts of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans that they had bid on earlier that morning. Walking through the aisle, vendors tried to get our attention, going so far as to step in front of us to sell us their huge slab of tuna on display. They had everything — even eels that they said came from America.

But this was just a pit stop. We walked over to the brand new market building next door, huge, shaped like a dolphin, and that was where we picked up our purchases. We found a vendor, got three types of fish (rock fish, seabream, and salmon), some scallops, and too many of those little octopuses. This was cut up in front of us and then we were herded upstairs to a restaurant where the live octopus and fish would be prepared for us. We were seated, and it was just a short wait later before the food arrived.

A man doling out scallops and octopuses at the fish market in Noryangjin
I wish we had gotten twice the number of scallops!

Time to Eat Some Live Octopus!

Raw fish prepared as such is called sashimi, and various “condiments” like peppers, ssamjang, ginger, etc. were spread around the edges of the plate. You could eat it as is or you could take a piece of lettuce and treat it like a little sandwich. This is called ssam.

However, we first had the live octopus to contend with. When it arrived, it… well, just watch the two videos. You’ll see what I mean.

My advice? Chew the live octopus. A lot. But all in all, it honestly wasn’t too bad. Moreover, the sashimi and scallops were delicious (especially with ginger)! Before we left, the establishment brought one more thing: spicy fish stew, called maeuntang. This was by far my favorite part of the meal. The fun part about it was the fish remains floating in each of our bowls. Just eat around them. You won’t regret it.

Spicy fish stew, food, Maeuntang, at Noryangjin Fish Market restaurant in Seoul
An incredible stew, 10/10, would definitely have again. I’ve only read a story before about fish cheeks by Amy Tan, but I now understand why it was the main character’s favorite meal!

I don’t know when I will return, but I hope all of you will get the chance to go if you’re ever in Korea, especially since the old building, the one that looked so cool above, is probably going to be shut down soon. Get at it, tigers.

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