One moment it’s a modern city street, and the next it has morphed into a timeless tableau of gabbing people crouching over brightly colored plastic bowls full of flora, fauna, and fungi. Over their heads stand battered, multi-colored umbrellas, casting a reddish light on all. As you walk along, the combined smell of medicinal herbs, overripe fruit, fish, and fermenting soy pummel the nose. There’s a cacophony of splashing water, chopping knives, rumbling produce trucks, and friendly shouts to the next stall. To be here is an exhilarating chaos for the mind and body, a reminder of life’s messy vibrancy.
When you visit a shijang, meaning “market” here in the Republic of Korea, few will try and hawk their goods to you. This is because the vendors are mostly elderly men and women, sprawled out and napping under cardboard on daybeds in small rooms behind their stands. Their market tables hold an eclectic hodgepodge of goods crowded together; fermented soybean paste in used water bottles, pastel-colored rice cakes, fish heads, ginseng, apples, grains, beans and anything else that might strike the vendor as worthy. By far, the most noticeable and bizarre element of these markets is the concentration of seafood and its presence in many states.
Stalls upon stalls of elderly women sell all manner of fresh, whole, cut, dried, salted, and fermented sea creatures and plants. Many of the stands have seawater tanks, filled with a smattering of different species. There is such diversity, and it seems as though anything caught is used, ranging from a huge cross-sectioned chunk of a tuna neatly displaying its vertebrae and circulatory system, to hundreds of tiny, dessicated silvery bodies shoved into plastic bags for a snack. There are animals gelatinous or shelled, bright as metal or dull as mud, lively, apathetic, in pickling brine, just born or clearly post-mortem. You can find sea life in every stage of its life cycle. Initially, I found this disconcerting, making a value judgment that the young sea creatures should have a chance to grow. Yet, after some time here, I am munching on these tiny fish along with everyone else.
At his time three months ago, I thought my ideas on responsible seafood consumption were universal, that everyone would agree on the kinds of changes that needed to happen in order for the oceans to have a chance against humankind. This is why I winced upon seeing the tiny fish at the market. I did not understand the Korean culinary traditions, many of which have existed for more than a millennium. Koreans use every part of what they catch and raise. With a fish, they eat its flesh and skin and use its cartilage for soup and side dishes. They fry, pickle and preserve every last inch of nutritious tissue. This practice has been sustainability long before the word existed.
Yet it is true that our oceans are struggling under the weight of human demands, both directly and indirectly. We are all taking so much. After seeing the fish markets in Busan, I came to understand the scale more completely.
Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, a sprawling port on the Southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. A majority of Korean imports and exports pass through this harbor, as do countless ferries. A friend and I were scheduled to take an early morning ferry from Busan to Fukuoka, Japan. Feeling adventurous, we roamed the streets of Busan in the wee morning hours. Near the ferry terminal we spotted a map and discussed the general area where we might wander. We had to visit the fish markets. It was the perfect time.
We came upon tiny stalls at first, many of them restaurants set right against the harbor. Feeling a late night hunger pang and an urge to take the adventure a step further, we sidled up to one of the stalls and dined on a sea creature that looked something like a lamprey, complete with a sucker mouth. Our hostess-chef threw its flesh, which still wriggled a bit, into a tinfoil pan full of onions, garlic, and red pepper paste. It smelled and tasted heavenly, albeit the texture was somewhere between jicama and squid. We wrapped up the mystery fish in anise-flavored sesame leaves, crammed it into our mouths and hoped to escape food poisoning as the hostess fished some glasses out of a bucket of dirty water for our barley tea.
As we moved deeper into the markets, the noises and scents intensified as fisher folk and merchants in bright galoshes began the day. We watched as they filled their tanks with fresh seawater and their catch, hosed down their stands and sat back to eat their breakfast of kimchi and rice. At their feet sat huge, square net packs of clams, mussels, and abalone that must have weighed several hundred pounds each, likely being readied for shipment to cities throughout Korea. A few women sat shucking mussels into shallow dishes, perhaps to be dried or pickled and then sent off to other markets.
There were many moments when I found myself in awe of how the live animals were still struggling to survive. We saw a large crab try and pull itself out of a tank by hooking its spindly leg on a bar across the tank, hanging there, unclear where to go next. There was an octopus that had managed to crawl out onto the floor, but lay still at my feet. Some tanks of fish swam in a state of hysteria, shaking the tank in their futile search for an exit.
These creatures were all so desperate to live, and I felt moved by the sight of them, on both a micro level of their present struggle and the global level of their dwindling populations. This all reached a point of utmost intensity when I crouched down next to a tank jammed full of octopi and filmed a bit of their languid movements. I focused my camera on an octopus in the center of the tank, and this animal watched me as intently and clearly as I watched it.
Koreans have relied on marine wildlife for thousands of years, and it will be necessary to understand this tradition before beginning a dialogue on change. My hope is that as our global village grows and we begin to understand the scale of our impact as a species, these conversations will not come too late.