One Fish, Two Fish, Dr. Seuss Would Love Thish

P1060980.1

Sometimes it takes a trip to a fish market for you to realize, Toto, we’re not even remotely in the States anymore. Such was the case on Saturday when, after spending the morning at work, I received a Facebook message from Rob asking if I wanted to go out exploring. Despite the fact that I was already back in bed, despite the bags under my eyes, despite the precious nap I planned to enjoy… Of course I said Hell to the yes! Where are we going?

To the largest fish market in Seoul, he replied in text.

Curiosity piqued, clothes back on, Cool! I’ll meet you at the corner in ten minutes. It’s gorgeous outside! I’m glad I won’t feel guilty about this wasted day tomorrow, and I’m craving a chance to use my camera.

Don’t wear flip flops, he cautions. Lydia found that out the hard way. 

P1060966.1We meet on the corner as planned and head to the subway station. I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think as we head through the turnstiles and both naturally turn the same direction at the bottom of the stairs. (Often I’m stuck staring at my phone every time I’m faced with two options. Tell me, oh SmartDevice, which direction do I want to go? What should I do with my life? What shoes should I wear today? I’m glad Siri isn’t available (i4) or this could get out of control. Has anyone made a crystal ball app?) To my frustration, once we’re on the car I’m lost again, having to check every other stop to make sure we haven’t missed our transfer. Good thing Rob knows where we are going.

Ready for a small world moment? Last June, Laura’s British friend Ayesha came to visit us in Seattle. They taught together in Seoul the year before, and at the end of her contract Ayesha decided to do an American tour. Over the weekend we took the BOLT bus down to Portland and then drove to eastern Oregon for the annual Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. Laura’s father, Eric Folkestad, is the main organizer for the rally every year, and it was the perfect ‘American!’ event to show our visitor. The weekend in Baker City was so much fun—beer and bikes and country music—and of course after about ten hours in the car together plus a weekend of hanging out with bikers, Ayesha (fondly referred to as A-Bomb) and I became friends. Ok, small world moment. Not only does Ayesha now teach at the same school as me in Seoul (no prior planning), but our co-teacher and friend Rob is from Baker City, OR. He knows all the restaurants and bars we went to, and tells us stories about the town when it’s not filled with an influx of biker dudes. He has also lived in Portland for a few years, and it’s nice to have someone from your same part of the world to share region-specific jokes with.

em at noryanjin

Rob and I take the subway over the Han, the big river that runs through the heart of Seoul. It’s wonderful to come up from the depths and be traveling above ground. I can even see out the window over the head of the Korean girl in front of me. It is a beautiful day. Cold and crisp; the sun reflecting off buildings tricks your mind into thinking it might be warm. We get off at our stop, climb the stairs to the walking bridge, and stare over the tracks at the city. We’re still a bit away, but you can tell that thousands of pounds of fish are nearby. Not in a nose-scrunching way, more like your brain is telling you the sea is nearby even though it’s not in sight.

Across the walking bridge, we start the descent into the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. After a flight of wide steps we come out on the second floor balcony. At eye level with ceiling lights and beams, the expanse of the place takes a moment to sink in. Literally as far as the eye can see are stalls, each similar to the last, vendors hawking the day’s catch to hundreds of passerby. I’m glad of the way we came in; with an initial bird’s eye view I am able to take in the scene, assess the dimensions of the place. It’s the kind of market you want to at least see on a map before you dive in head first. I collect my bearings, sling my camera around my neck, and we’re off! P1060969.1

At the main floor I immediately regret my choice of shoes. I had opted for some tennies over my hiking boots, letting my newfound sense of Korean fashion dictate my wardrobe. Mi-stake. Too late I feel the damp and roll up the hem of my jeans, fish juice from the ground having already seeped in. I suck it up (the feeling, not the fish juice), just tell myself I’ll wash my clothes as soon as I get home and on the subway just blame the smell on the old guy next to me. Thank you Merrell for making machine-washable shoes!

P1070031.1

My camera is out and it’s all I can do to not just live behind the lens. The colors, the smell, the sounds of a thousand voices buying and selling fish, the textures of dozens of species of sea life all scream to be recorded. For the first time in Korea I play the unabashed tourist. I can’t help it. This place is amazing! Rob informs me that Anthony Bourdain came here in his South Korea episode, and I see why. While potentially overwhelming, it is a foodie’s paradise. I make Rob stop at the stall selling tuna, literally grabbing the back of his shirt to halt him before he loses me in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like this, except in my dreams. Old woman vendor, cross-sections of tuna the size of your torso, women yelling to have their order taken, piles of tuna steaks being trimmed to order and size. I gluttonously picture myself sinking my face into a mound of tuna sashimi. It kind of reminds me of the last scene in Scarface when he just lowers his face to the white mountain. That’s what I want. But with tuna. Unfortunately, I still have a few days until my first payday, so no tuna-coke dreams will be fulfilled today. That’s okay, though. I add it to my list

Once through the first line of stalls, we come out into the open at the entrance to a produce market. Looking for a bit of a break, we wander out into the sun. Rob mentions there is a strange alleyway market off to the left, and he stays in the open to smoke while I descend into what looks like a hobo tunnel market. Don’t take pictures, he warns me. A man chased us down last time.

P1070010.1The dark shapes crouched along the tunnel wall are indeed people, and in fact mostly old women. You see many elderly women running the small food stalls here, both in markets and in street food carts. In a society where the elderly are cared for by the young, if you don’t have offspring you simply continue to work, or if your family struggles to make ends meet, there really is no such thing as retirement. The women crouch along the wall, covered in hats and blankets, scrubbing vegetables or shucking beans into plastic pots. Their knuckles are swollen with rheumatoid arthritis, but their movements have the surety that comes from a lifetime of perfecting a skill. In awe, I walk among them and try not to stare. When I do gather the courage to ask for a picture, the woman frowns and shakes her head. For some reason, I feel a sense of superstition in her answer, although I can’t quite explain it. Less curt than wary.

P1070009.1

 

I was filled with an immediate sense of respect… for her, for her way of life, for her beliefs. While incredibly different from me, our shared humanity was tangible in a brief interaction. And I suppose we are both doing what we need to in order to survive.

She may have denied a photo, but her pickles didn’t.

 

 

Kimchi jjigae!

528695_796113909505_2009643140_nIf I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.

New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one.  My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.

Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.

 

Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.

Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.

IMG_3713

Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.

IMG_3714

When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.

The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”

IMG_3715

He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.

Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.

 

 

What you’ll need:

A good chunk of cabbage kimchi (standard kimchi)IMG_3717

Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes

Firm tofu

Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning

Water

That’s it.

First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything  is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!

As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.

This is Korea.