Fish for Sale, Fresh as They Can Be

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Fish for Sale, Fresh as They Can Be

MARKET GUIDE: Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market

Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market is liveliest before dawn. The wholesale and retail fish market comes alive with tons of wriggling seafood, pungent smells and crowds of people, stomping through the muck.

The action is especially heated at one corner of the warehouse, near Noryangjin subway station. Hundreds of people are focused on the auction phase of the fishery business cycle. The 3 to 7 a.m. fish auction is vital to seafood businesses and fiercely competitive.

All the key players - wholesale brokers, large restaurateurs and market management - gather around yellow crates, like hawks circling their prey. The freshest seafood to be found anywhere in Seoul is squirming in the crates, and only the highest bidder will walk out victorious.

On Wednesday, 4,600 kilograms of perch (nong-eo), flatfish (gwang-eo), flounder (neobchi), mullet (sung-eo) and other seafood were auctioned off. Normally, 6,000 to 8,000 kg are sold, but "business tapers off around Jeongwoldaeboreum (the holiday celebrating the first full moon after Lunar New Year) and the economy is slowing down," according to Shin Man-ho, a sales manager at the market.

During the winter, bidders are wrapped in dark padded jackets with their pants tucked into rubber boots. They're identifiable by the numbers on their caps and their personal bidding style, which is somewhat of an art form. The auctioning is like a secret language understood only by a close-knit community.

When the price is right, a bidder signals to the auctioneer, using the flap of his jacket to hide his flickering fingers from inquisitive eyes. Another pretends to wipe the brim of his cap, secretly flashing a number against his ear. When the bidding gets fierce, arms start to flail in the air and onlookers begin to clap and stomp their feet.

"It's hard for outsiders to break in," Mr. Shin admitted. It rarely happens. All those having anything to do with fish being sold to the public, from the fisherman to the broker, are certified by the government. At Noryangjin Fish Market, the number of fish merchants with vendors or stalls is also limited by space. "The only way space opens up for newcomers is if someone ceases working, and very rarely do people decide that they've had enough of this demanding business," Mr. Shin said. Some of the stores are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Most of the fish vendors are family-run, often by husband and wife teams who pass along the reins of their business to their children. As a result, most of the people associated with the market have histories that stretch back several generations.

The market was first established by the Japanese in 1927, under the name of Kyungsung Fish Market Corporation. Originally located near Seoul Station, the main transportation hub, the market was moved to its present location in 1972. After changing hands several more times, it was renamed Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in 1988.

The auction is only one part of the market. Here retailers, tourists and housewives can find a mind-boggling amount of natural, farm-raised and frozen seafood, seafood banchan (side dishes) and dried goods in 894 storefronts. The freshest seafood in all of Seoul is at the fish market. Prices for retail customers are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than at grocery stores. Depending on the type, seafood is sold by weight or amount.

Most of the marine products are from Korea, but recently, the proportion of seafood caught near China, Japan and North Korea has increased to 30 percent.

About 30,000 people use the market daily. What really draws the yearly 10,000 foreign tourists - other than the animated atmosphere, fresh seafood and affordable prices - are the restaurants.

There are two types of restaurants at this fish market: Korean style (hoe yangnyeomsik) and Japanese style (ilsik). After all, no other country enjoys hoe (raw fish) as much as Korea and Japan.

The Korean style raw fish comes with chojang, a dipping sauce made of chili paste, vinegar, garlic and green onion, and a variety of side dishes. The chef can also make a spicy stew (maeuntang) with the scrap parts of the filleted fish. The eyes, head and tail are delicacies. Japanese-style sushi and sashimi are cut and served differently. Most of the restaurants are located on the second floor.

After walking around the market, choose a live fish from one of the vendors. The merchant will kill it with a quick blow to the head, scale and slice it. You can then take the cleaned raw fish to any of the restaurants, which will provide the perfect side dishes for a satisfying meal.

People who want fresh seafood may go to the fish market. Ironically, whenever there's a reason for merchants at the fish market to celebrate, they usually go elsewhere to satisfy a craving for beef rib (galbi), Mr. Shin said wryly.

For more information, visit the market's Web site at (available in English).

NEXT WEEK Gyeongdong Market ( Gyeongdong Sijang), an herb market.

by Joe Yong-hee

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