Eating it Raw in the Largest Fish Market in South Korea – Jagalchi Market
Busan’s Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장), the largest fish market in South Korea, has taken up two very different places in my memory. The first one is a very positive place, where the memories of incredible lunches, lively atmospheres, excitement and intrigue all sit. The second place is dark. It’s usually avoided at all costs. This memory is based on the 8 or so rats that we saw scrounging through a pile of garbage (watch the video til the end).
I hate rats. When we go to a country for the first time, we always keep a rat count. Vietnam took the title during our first trip to Southeast Asia with 5 rats in 22 days (a rat every 4.4 days). But, in the matter of 10 seconds, South Korea managed to make Vietnam look like the outskirts of Alberta with a total of 9 rats in 12 days – a rat every 1.33 days.
That being said, this article is about fish, not rats, so I’m going to focus on the positive memories of Jagalchi Market. But know, as I write this with my feet off the floor, that those rats are haunting my memories.
If you get to the market at 5AM, you can witness the morning setup. I’m sure that’s pretty cool, but how does it compare to sleeping? The exterior portion of the market is filled with all kinds of seafood from penis fish (you’ll know it when you see it) to whale meat. There’s a lot of hacking, scales shooting off of dead creatures, blood pooling.
The name Jagalchi is a combination of words that mean gravel and place by the sea. I guess many years ago the ground was covered in gravel. They’ve since concreted everything up and built a large wharf behind the market.
It’s no coincidence that the market really established itself after the Korean War. During the war, while the men were fighting, the women kept the country going by taking over the men’s jobs. When the war ended, some of the positions that were once thought to be too difficult for women, kept their female temps. Jagalchi fish mongering is one of them. It allowed more men to fish, which really helped the market grow.
The women who run the stalls are nicknamed the Jagalchi ajumma – ajumma meaning a married woman. They are kind of scary at times. It’s likely the combination of yelling and knife wielding.
One woman didn’t seem please at me for taking photos of her product. She was arranging long eel-like fish as if she were a bird of paradise hoping to attract a mate. Perhaps she thought I’d scare off customers.
You can divide the market up by east and west. The west side has live fish and shellfish. The east is for dried seafood. Both are interesting, but the west side is definitely more lively – no pun intended.
The market’s clients range from restaurateurs to house wives, all looking for the meatiest, the freshest, and the fairest prices.
Inside the large Shindonga market building is where you’ll find lunch. Even if you’re not hungry, take a walk through the building as it’s one of the highlights of my visit to Busan.
Tanks overflow with water, and sometimes giant crabs hoping to make an escape. There is a lot of noise, but it’s a fitting soundtrack to the chaotic atmosphere.
In the area where the yellow tables are, you’ll find people eating large seafood feast. You might be pestered to sit down for a meal. We hadn’t planned to eat at Jagalchi market, but after seeing the large platters of raw fish, we decided a beer and some sashimi was exactly what had to happen.
It’s possible to go upstairs to a more restaurant-like setting, but the atmosphere on the main floor was just what I was looking for.
With the plethora of options available to you, don’t be afraid to browse some menus. We ended up finding a guy who spoke English, which was useful because we really had no idea what to get.
The prices are high, but considering the freshness and the fact that you’re devouring an entire living thing, it’s really not that bad. We ordered a plate of raw rock fish (20,000 KRW or about $17.50), but there are a ton of options for both cooking techniques and food type.
Many tourists come here to try the raw baby octopus. It’s chopped up alive and served to you while it’s still squirming. I watched a table of locals eat some and decided that it wasn’t for me, especially considering Sara wouldn’t even try it, so I would have had to take down a whole plate by myself.
Abalone, a type of sea snail, is also a popular item. As are the giant crabs that looked like they might one day enslave the workers and take control of the market.
Sitting at large yellow cafeteria-like tables, we patiently waited for our food. The Koreans that surrounded us were feasting on piles of seafood. Many of them leaving behind enough food to feed a person. They must have spent a fortune on these meals. We pretty much ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and it was still our most expensive meal in South Korea.
The large plate of fish that arrived did not disappoint. Sara said that it might be better than salmon, but that’s ludicrous. At any rate, it was very delicious and we savored every bite. Among all those living sea creatures, the vendors that slaughtered them, and the hungry Koreans, we both agreed that this would be one of the most unforgettable meals we would have in Korea.
Where: 52 Jagalchihaean-ro, Busan
부산광역시 중구 자갈치해안로 52 (남포동4가)
You can easily get to it by taking Metro line 1 to Jagalchi station and exiting at exit 10.
Hours: It’s open daily except on… well, I read the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of the month, but some other sites say the last Tuesday of the month, so I guess avoid it if it’s a Tuesday unless it’s the 2nd Tuesday of the month..?
Vendors will be setup between 5AM and 10PM, but the market building opens at 9AM.