Bids and bites

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2007, 12:00am

Well before dawn, in a sprawling, hangar-like structure just south of Seoul's Han River, a loosely choreographed morning routine begins. Handcarts stacked 10 deep with plastic crates whisk live fish through narrow lanes lined with tanks. Merchants shovel waist-high mounds of mussels. And round a corner, the wailing klaxon of a front-end loader warns of an incoming pallet of frozen squid.

Shifts start early at Seoul's Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. While the city sleeps, a thriving trade in all things aquatic and edible is under way. Bleary-eyed bidders clasping steaming cups of tea gather at the morning wholesale auction, where auctioneers hop from foot to foot, barking a staccato sales banter. Entire lots are bought and sold with little more than a nod.

When the rosy dawn light floods the city, the 80-year-old market's focus shifts from the auction to 700 individual vendors, who occupy the first floor of the three-level, 66,000 square metre complex.

Seafood arrives at Noryangjin from 15 ports across the Korean peninsula, with boats trawling the waters off Japan, China and Russia to provide much of the 350 tonnes of seafood traded at the market each day.

Choi Young-seob, a chef, has been coming to Noryangjin for more than 20 years. 'This market is the largest and has the best and freshest selection,' he says. 'But this year everything is so expensive.'

Despite the volatility of live fish prices, there's a brisk trade as families stroll through the market inspecting the catch, with children shrieking as they spot the monsters of the deep.

Long, sleek mackerel share beds of ice with sinister looking sharks and rays, while a nearby bank of terraced tanks houses every imaginable kind of crustacean. Noryangjin can often seem more like an aquarium than a market.

A powerful draw for many visitors is hwee, or freshly prepared raw fish. Those who come hungry aren't disappointed: merchants on the first floor will happily net your selection and present it for approval before deftly reducing it, on a telephone book-thick slab of hardwood, to thin slices.

Hwee is served with kimchi, garlic, chilli paste and wasabi wrapped in lettuce and astringent sesame leaves. Short of leaping into the sea with a spear gun, it's difficult to find fresher fish.

Absorbing radiated warmth from the heated floors, diners chat animatedly over hwee and steaming pots of maeoontan, a robust, spicy fish stew made from the head and bones of whatever fish you ask for. The food, best enjoyed with Korean wine soju, is a Noryangjin tradition.

Like all the world's best fish markets, there's a vibrancy and allure to Noryangjin. It's in the damp, salty air and the delicate sweetness of the freshly prepared fish. But mostly it's in the thrill of seeing some of the ocean's secrets revealed.

Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, Seoul (tel: 82 2 814 2211 2), operates from 2am to 9pm every day except Sundays and holidays. Hwee for two costs from 10,000 won. (HK$87.50).