SOUTH KOREA: BUSAN
I loved my time in Seoul. However, if a gun was placed against my head, I would have to admit that I enjoyed my time in the country’s second city, Busan (Pusan?) even more.
It is not a small place, with a population of nearly four million people. But, it has a small town, almost provincial feel that offered a welcome respite from the megatropolis that was the nation’s capital. It also exudes a more earthy air, hardly surprising as it is a port city and for centuries one of the first places that foreign visitors to the Joseon kingdom would come to ply their trade, which made for what was regarded as an edgy and dangerous place.
Those days are all but gone, but some legacies remain. Across the city, you find signs indicating that the shop owners speak many languages. Not for the foreign tourists, of which there are relatively few but for sailors from the many ships, which find berth in the still bustling harbour. There is also one more legacy, far more interesting for the food enthusiast. Busan is home to the Jalgachi (literally village by the shore) fish market, which is second in size only to Tsukiji in Tokyo and the wafts of fishy scent from the mongers and restaurants lay heavily over the lower reaches of the city.
We arrived from Seoul after an short two hour journey on the excellent K-Rail connection between the two cities and, after dropping our bags off at the rather eccentric hotel we had chosen, went out to visit the area around the port. The main fish market, of course, only comes to life in the early hours of the morning. However, surrounding the main building are alleyways filled with restaurants, in front of which are tanks from which you can select your live fish or seafood to be prepared to your liking.
Next to the Jalgachi, is a six-storey building called Shindonga, which houses vast numbers of fishmongers who offer the same service. Cases of live fish are situated next to bright yellow tables. While elderly women bark out to attract customers, the apron clad owners scoop the fish from their water baths and dispatch them with a efficiency that can only come from years of practice.
It’s not cheap, but then great seafood never is and, after treating ourselves to a simply grilled snapper, we headed back towards the main town in search of something more substantial. We found it in the form of Samgyetang, a small chicken, stuffed with rice and fresh ginseng and poached in a close fitting container to form a light broth. While Syb found it a little bland, for me it was one of the eating highlights during our whole time in Korea and definitely a dish that I intend to make at home in the near future.
After a slightly fitful night’s sleep, we awake at 5am and went straight out to the fish market. It was certainly impressive, compared to some I had seen, but paled in comparison to Tsukiji (as I suspect any market I ever visit always will) and we were soon headed back to our hotel to catch up on some much needed rest.
As in Seoul, our time in Busan was limited and we wanted to fit in as much as was humanly possible. Close to Busan and very accessible by use of its limited but efficient subway system, are a number of beach resorts where locals and Korean tourists spend their vacation time. One of the largest is Haeundae, a few miles to the East of the city.
Unsurprisingly, in November, few locals had chosen to spend their day on the windswept beach, which left us pretty much to our own devices as we strolled along the promenade. Towards the end of our walk and just when our stomachs were reminding us that we had not yet had lunch, we came upon a smart restaurant called HaeunMaru, which later research revealed to be one of the best fish restaurants in the region.
Even if we had not done the research, it would have been very clear that this was no ordinary fish restaurant. Prices were not for the faint hearted, at over $100 for two. But, the quality of the food on offer made this one of the best meals of the whole vacation. We began with a tray of assorted raw seafood, including abalone, conch, oysters, shrimps and clams. All were breathtakingly fresh and all (apart from the oysters which I avoided for fear of death) as good as any I have ever tried. These came alongside dishes of excellent banchan and a bowl of steaming Chawanmushi, the savoury egg custard I had become such a fan of during my time in Japan.
Next up, a plate of fresh local fish which had been simply grilled and given a dousing in lemon juice before being served to us at the table. While we ate the flesh, the bones were taken away and used to make a thin, spicy fish soup bulked out with noodles and sliced spring onions. A fantastic end to a meal, which confirmed everything I already love about Korean food.
By the time we returned to the city, it was already dark and we spent our last evening in Korea walking through the streets thronged with kids as we decided on where to have our last meal or snack of this part of the trip. We noticed that one particular street stall appeared to be much busier than all the rest and joined the queue to find out what all the fuss was about.
At the head of the line, a short, plump woman was wrapping dough around a filling of brown sugar, honey and cinnamon before frying them on a hot plate until golden brown on both sides. When they were ready to be served, she placed them in a paper cup, split the top and then filled the cavity with roasted peanuts and sesame seeds. These were Ho-tteok and were certainly a sweet treat. Perhaps too sweet for me, but Sybil loved them and talks about them still.
Fitting enough that our last day in the energetic city of Busan, indeed our last day (for now) in Korea would offer up two of the best tastes of a week’s worth of incredible eating. Enough for certain to ensure that we both are certain we would like to return and discover more of what Korea has to offer.
In the meantime, however, the vacation was only just beginning and we were off to Singapore and Malaysia.