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Articles / The Busan Fish Market Absolutely Blew Our Minds

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The Busan Fish Market Absolutely Blew Our Minds

Published March 6, 2024

Plus, Allison Robicelli is today’s guest on Food with Mark Bittman

A meal at the fish market in Busan. Photo: Mark Bittman

Our guest on ​Food with Mark Bittman​ today is Allison Robicelli, who has been on the food scene for years; she started out cooking in New York and is now a nonalcoholic beverage columnist for the Washington Post.

Allison’s is a unique journey, to be sure, and she told us about so much of it — from the time when she was 13 years old and got blackout drunk for the first time, to her deep delve into the history of alcohol, to her thoughts on AA. She is aggressively sober but not preachy about it, she knows a lot about drinking issues, and we think she is way ahead of the curve on the new sobriety, or the new semi-sobriety. This is a topic more and more people are thinking about, and Allison very often nails it. Plus she’s funny as hell. Let us know what you think. (And here are six nonalcoholic drinks that Allison loves.) —kb

Photo: Allison Robicelli

Follow ​​Food with Mark Bittman​​ on: ​​Apple Podcasts​​ | ​​Spotify​​ | ​​Overcast​​ ​​Pocket Casts​​ | ​​Amazon Music


Meanwhile, over in Busan, Korea …

Trigger warning: This piece has loads of live and dead and in-between sea-based animals that are intended to be eaten (and some were).

All photos: Mark Bittman and Kathleen Finlay

Today we headed into Busan for a look around. We went straight to Jagalchi Fish Market, which is huge and has just about every kind of water-based creature imaginable. Downstairs held stall after stall, usually tended by women …

… offering sea squirts, eels, abalone, fin fish of all kinds, the biggest oysters and mussels anyone’s ever seen, seaweed of all kinds, loads of kelp …

… gigantic shrimp and crabs, and more.

The list could go on interminably, and we’ll get back to it. The tanks, by the way, are fed with running water and all the fish and shellfish are alive (though, in truth, some barely).

Later in the day, we discovered that the streets outside the markets were also packed with stalls—there was some duplication, but the animals in the street stalls were all dead: skewered skates; huge octopi, some cooked some raw; loads of barracuda and flatfish; beautifully wrapped kelp everywhere, some fresh some dried.

We marveled at the sheer quantity of it all and, knowing that it happened daily in this city, we couldn’t help but wonder what the per capita consumption of things from the sea is: How can there be so much demand?

We wandered around in the rain; it wasn’t that cold, probably 50 or so, but not super pleasant. The first food stall that appealed to us was selling skewered fish cakes (turns out Busan is famous for these). A woman already eating at the stall showed us the drill: You choose a skewer, either from plain simmering water or from a base of chile sauce, and just eat it off the skewer, dipping it in sesame oil first. (Sesame oil is huge in Busan, too.) The best thing, in a way—the fish cake was terrific, that kind of pressed cake, quite sweet—was that you get a small (always red, it seems) cup of the cooking liquid, a kind of sweet fishy broth, to wash it down.

We were trying not to eat too much because we had a plan to go back to the seafood market for lunch. So we just kept wandering. The next thing we couldn’t resist was next to a tower of fried baby soft shell crabs …

… we wanted those but decided they were too much, volume-wise. But there was also a mound of fried chicken skin (and also some very strangely cut and colored potatoes) …

… and that was irresistible. But just as we were about to buy it, a man who was helping us figure things out offered some of his. Thank you very much, we said in Korean, our only phrase and already forgotten, and kept going.

By this time we were in a huge covered market with several intersecting streets and many people, but not hugely crowded. There were fried pastries, sweet and savory; deep-fried eggs; bacon being crisped with a torch; vats of beans and soup; many, many fried foods, some fish cakes but some not. We don’t have enough space or enough knowledge to describe all of this, plus, we don’t want to overwhelm you—but we were overwhelmed ourselves.

We walked back to the fish market in the rain. What we neglected to tell you earlier is that on the second floor of the fish market, there are also dozens of stalls with smaller tanks but with kitchens. They have mostly the same fish as on the first floor—not as many kinds, but a lot—and you can sit and order and eat. (You can also buy fish downstairs and bring it up to be cooked, but that was way too complicated for us and we were wet and hungry.)

So we settled in at stall #40, where a mother, son, and daughter-in-law took care of us.

There was so much on that table (see photo at the very top): three kinds of raw fish, along with raw oysters, sea cucumber, sea worm (actually MB’s favorite—well, aside from the oyster), sea squirt (very oyster-like), and still-writhing octopus; and oh, yes, an omelet of course. This was followed by steamed scallops, oysters, whelk, and abalone. (We saw more abalone in Busan than most people see in their lives.) Then a lovely little piece of sautéed fish, and finally a fish-bone stew (we cheated and put some leftover raw fish in there, along with a little extra garlic), cooked at the table and mysteriously flavored with medium-hot chile and some damn thing we couldn’t figure out. Super.

Here’s the instant review.

This feast, with beers, clocked in at about $60 (total), and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, check it out.

We loved Busan and were sorry the weather kept us from exploring more. And now, off to Japan! —mb and kf