Do you remember that one scene in Oldboy? The scene which, after you watched it, you never forgot and needed therapy to recover from? You know, that scene, the one where Oh Dae-Su eats a living octopus? Well, our lunch at the Millak Raw Fish Market brought me as close to the experience of being Oldboy as I ever need to get.
On entering the world’s largest sashimi hall, I was strangely giddy, but also nervous. Jürgen and I had eaten sushi, but never full plates of sashimi, which is just sliced-up raw fish. Luckily, we had a trump card up our sleeves: our friend Young-mi was visiting from Germany. She runs Kimchi Princess, the most popular Korean restaurant in Berlin, and with her at our side, we could eat anything! (Not only would she reassure us with her knowledge, but shame us with her mockery. Like all good friends, Young-mi has no problem letting us know when we’re being wimps).
The bottom floor of the building is a live fish market, with twenty stands run by scheming, curly-haired ladies, who are honed and merciless hawkers. As soon as we entered, the three nearest the door sunk their claws into us, yelling and selling, refusing to recognize negative responses. There seemed to be no difference between the various vendors — the prices were about the same, as was the selection. We resisted the first two fiery fishmongers, but succumbed to the third, who laughed victoriously at her enemies while completing the sale.
We chose a flounder (do-da-li) and a mullet (sung-eo), with an octopus, and a bunch of sea pineapples (meong-ge) thrown in for free. This all cost ?30,000 ($27) — which, for that much fish, is unbelievable. She laid the mullet on her table and hacked into his head with a huge knife, then told us to go up to the second floor to await our meal. The building has ten stories and, from the upper levels, the view of Gwangalli Beach is unbeatable. But what floor you’re sent to depends entirely upon the vendor from whom you buy your fish — we didn’t know that until after completing our purchase.
Once upstairs, we didn’t have to wait long for our meal. Which makes sense, considering that nothing is being cooked. The flounder and mullet were cut into thin slices and piled onto plates. The sea pineapple was chopped up and served in a bowl of its own juice. It looked horrendous — just alien and awful. The octopus had been hacked into pieces, and set into a dish full of sauce. Its nerves were still firing like crazy and, despite being completely dismembered, the tentacles were crawling around on top of each other, searching for escape.
I downed a shot of soju, grabbed onto a thrashing tentacle with my chopsticks and threw it into my mouth, viciously chomping and chewing so that it couldn’t suction onto the side of my throat as I swallowed. And then another shot of soju. And now, I could think about what had just happened. It was frightening, but once you get past the creature’s frantic motion, its slippery texture and its being raw, the octopus actually tasted rather good.
The whole meal was like that. As had been the case with the octopus, my first bites of flounder and mullet were terrifying and quickly accomplished, without allowing time to think or second-guess. The following mouthfuls were more considered. I had to concede that, against all odds, sashimi is delicious. The taste and smell of the thin slices weren’t fishy in the slightest. They tasted good. Strange. Like nothing, but then again like something cold and healthy and alive. We wrapped the sashimi up in leaves, or just dunked it into soy sauce with wasabi and ate it straight.
Sigh, yes, I see you over there Mr. Sea Pineapple, waving your ugly little red nubs, impatiently awaiting your turn for my approval. Well, you won’t get it. You, my friend, are an abomination. Just the thought of you, your texture and flavor, is making me sick. Ammonia mixed with horse puke. That’s what you taste like. Go to hell where you belong.
In all, it was an exciting meal, and not entirely as scary as I had been anticipating. The hardest part was bargaining with the fish ladies on the bottom floor, and getting over the waves of disgust when that slithering octopus tentacle first touches your tongue. But we were in Busan. Eating sashimi is one of the quintessential experiences in this city. If you have the chance, it’s not to be missed.