On a cold and rainy morning, we headed to Seoul’s oldest and largest outdoor market: Kara Market, located in the Songpa-gu district. Equivalent to the size of approximately 300 football fields, it began as a small market for farmers from the outlying areas of the city but grew exponentially in the 80′s to now include fish vendors and butchers.
This is the time of year when families all around Korea prepare kimchi for the bitter months ahead and I wanted to see what kind of ingredients were available. As a child, growing up on my grandparents’ farm in Suwon, I remember pulling radishes out of the ground, cleaning them in the brook, and eating them just like that. The bitter-sweet, earthy, refreshing bite never left me and I wanted to recreate this experience for our guests at the restaurant with our own kimchi.
But it was the napa cabbages that impressed. Massive robust leaves shielding its phosphorescent centers, aching to be made into kimchi. All the fruits and vegetables brought the past rushing back to me.
I looked forward to trying some of these vegetables at one of the restaurants in the market in the form of kimchi. It would, naturally, be of the best and freshest quality due to all this abundant harvest. How kimchi tasted here would set the bar for what I needed to do back at the restaurant in Toronto.
But before heading to the restaurant, we needed to pick up some protein. The fish market was the perfect choice. I was longing for sashimi and was also reminded by my friend that I promised to eat live octopus. It was that or this intestinal sea worm, also meant to be consumed raw. I went with the octopus and this was the one I chose. Cute, slimy fellow… I also picked this gorgeous hiramasa for our sashimi. (The whole affair- of eating dog yesterday and live octopus today- began to smell a bit too Anthony Bourdain-ish for me and I vowed to avoid anything remotely extreme on our menu back home.) The left-overs from the fish, including the head, was substantial enough to make a stew. We took our catch with us to the restaurant connected to this particular fish vendor. We had heard that the chef there was considered the best in the whole market and that the kimchi was of the crisper (ie. short fermentation period) variety, which was my preference and hoped that it was the preference of our guests in Toronto too.
We handed over the goods to a toothless grandmother with a cleaver in her hand and took a seat in the back of the restaurant. It wasn’t long before the kimchi was spread out before us. The vibrancy of colours tell you everything in these photos. Clearly, my kimchi would not fare well against these. The fresh vegetable pickings was one thing, but it was the quality of the dried chili pepper, sesame oil, and sea salt that really took these appetizers over the top. I knew I had to source better ingredients than those that were being used by Korean chefs back in Toronto. I knew plenty of grandmothers (albeit with full sets of teeth) back home who could help do this.
Soon after, the mains came to the table. The sashimi, cut with great precision and deep understanding of the fish, was the freshest I had ever had. The stew using the left-overs were hearty and spicy. Then, of course, the octopus. Chopped up handily, but squirming on the plate, very much alive. And although it’s not quite like the scene from OLD BOY, here is the video of it below. It’s PG-rated, but you might want to hold onto something if you have a weak stomach.
I’m exhausted from all the sleepless nights, eating and eating long after hitting what marathoners rightly refer to as “The Wall”, and hoping that whatever this critter is that I’m putting into my mouth won’t erase the memory of all the great food ideas I need to take back to Toronto tomorrow.