Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stamina and Mool-gogi hunting

Fishy fish fish. In Korean, the word for fish is mool-gogi. "Mool" means water (since I learned it, I've been considerably less thirsty) and "gogi" means meat. Thus we have the linguistically dazzling water-meat.

Mr. Lee invited me to go water-meating in Sam-cheong-po, a town on the south coast, well to the west of Busan. He and his friends rented a room in a cottage on an island a 10-minute boat ride away.

The geography of the southern coast is really fascinating. It's composed of miles upon miles of clustered islands. Mr. Lee estimated that there are over 10,000 small islands down there. An undetailed map gives you an idea of how broken it is:
Mr. Lee picked me up and we met with his two friends, Mr. Jeong (the one that is an insurance salesman by day and the proprietor of a Korean hostess bar by night that I went to the club with) and Tae Hyeong, who I met for the first time.

Tae Hyeong is the youngest of the three, so they made him drive. I learned that in Korea, age, even amongst friends, is really important to how one is to behave and be treated. In Sam-cheong-po, we met with a friend of Mr. Lee's who studied at his university about 4 years before him, so he was older. The respect he was shown by the other three was remarkable. Their greeting was very formal and polite, with a two-handed handshake and bow. For whatever reason, I never got his name, but there's a 99.9% chance he was either a Lee, Kim, Park or Jung. I'll refer to him as LKPJ.

Not long after we arrived, LKPJ took us to an eel restaurant (STAMINA!) and we had a very nice meal. The eel (which really just tasted like nice fish) was to be flash-boiled in a stew of vegetables that simmered on a burner on the table. Then you wrapped it with this grassy green vegetable, dipped in a sesame-soy-onion sauce and enjoyed. I also got to try a new kind of soju. This stuff was brutal.

For starters, it was the color of green kool-aid (not for kids!). Mr. Lee explained that it was infused with juices from an eel's organ. He said not the liver, but the small green thing below it. I'm guessing gall bladder? Oh yeah, eel gall bladder soju. That's how you party old Korean man style. The taste? Well, about what you'd expect. Little fishy, lots of bite, and hardly sessionable, but I still had two shots. Koreans love to see what they can get me to consume. They are sometimes under the impression Americans can't handle anything spicier than ketchup or more exotic than Coca-Cola. But really, I'm waiting for the day that Mr. Lee pranks me and feeds me some awful garbage or something, introducing it as a traditional Korean dish.

LKPJ was clearly the center of attention for the meal, and they told stories about their college days. Poor Tae Hyeong, as the youngest, was waiting on everyone hand and foot, setting the table, pouring beer and soju and preparing dishes. It was clear that LKPJ was going to pay as the "hyung" or older brother of the group, so Mr. Lee and Mr. Jung were also making an effort to make him comfortable.
Mr. Lee and I in front of the Sam-cheong-po bridge. A multi-color neon light show takes place along it at nightfall. Oh Korea.

After the meal, we went to another restaurant on the water for fresh-caught shashimi (raw fish). I wasn't that hungry, but LKPJ was treating again, so why not.
The gang marches forth.

The appetizer was a big plate of tentacled-things. There was squid, octopus, and lots of legs. Tae Hyeong put a big squid in my dipping sauce dish and told me: "one bite!" I managed it fine, but I definitely had some ink dribbling down my chin. I apologize if that mental image is gross for anyone, at least you don't have to eat it.
We had a little room to ourselves. You can almost make out the octopus and squid on the table. Note the pink snow flake wallpaper.

Many more beers (mekju) and sojus later, we were joined by a local man that knew LKPJ. He was supposedly an expert in water-meating, so he offered to take us out and show us the ropes. Mr. Lee told me that he was the vice-principle of a school, but he was, for some reason, skeptical about the truth of that.

When the meal was through (I've really taken to raw fish, I'm wondering what fish would be good back in New England raw) we all shuffled down to the dock with our rods, coolers, and food.
Tae Hyeong and I board.
PUMPED, and trying not to think of the night scenes from Jaws.

The boat ride was short and peaceful. There's something majestic about the stillness of water at night and the way the neon Korean lights reflect off it.


At the recommendation of the fake vice principle, we set up on a jetty. After all the soju and mekju it understandably took awhile for us to get the rods set up. I found this really amusing. My casts weren't great, I lost two hooks and weights from getting snagged on rocks underwater. I did, however, catch the only fish of the night, an impossibly small guy (maybe 3.5")that I thought was really cute until the fake vice principle came over with a knife and filleted it on the spot. While he was doing this I just kept saying "oh no, oh no, oh no, he's not really doing that, is he?" And he did. He then took one of the bite-size fillets, dipped it in red pepper sauce, and put it in my mouth. My goodness, it was fresh and delicious, but I couldn't help but feel like I just ate Nemo. Mr. Lee later explained that the fish was actually mid-sized. The adults only grow to about 5 or 6 inches. I felt a little better about it.
Eventually, my reel clean broke off when I was trying to pull in a snag. I decided it was time to fold. Mr. Lee and Mr. Jung continued to fish and caught a few eels, which they just threw right in the cooler to swim with the soju and mekju. I offered to help Mr. Jeong with one of his catches:
Eel-wrangling!
...leads into obligatory slime cleanup. And I failed, the thing swallowed the hook.

While they fished, Tae Hyeong and I sat and chatted over drinks. His English was very good, which was nice. Most of Mr. Lee's friends don't really speak much English, so I was happy to speak with him.

His taught me the finer points of a beverage called so-mek. Korean beer is very light, so Koreans feel the need to give it an extra kick by mixing soju into it. The result is quite a potent potion they call so-mek. Things got fuzzy around that point in the night.

The next day, we got a boat back to the mainland. Here, I use eel slime to style Mr. Jeong's hair. Just kidding!

Once back on the mainland, we met up with LKPJ for lunch. We had a fish soup that straightened us out nicely. Again, LKPJ paid which was nice of him. Afterward, we went to the fish market on the docks. It was under a big roof with lots of different booths set up and hundreds of tanks holding various things from the sea. Koreans are big on eating everything and anything edible, so I couldn't really describe some of the creatures I saw.

Click here for an article from the New York Times travel section. It's about strange things you can eat in Korea, but there's a video you can play to the left hand side that features some footage of a fish market up in Seoul that was similar. Matt Gross, the travel columnist also eats live octopus. Awesome!

Around the market, the ajummas (it means grandmother, but is used to refer to any elderly woman) were in full force.
The visor is IN!

One of the ajummas fed me what I can only describe as a fish-sausage. It's made from fish and processed somehow, so, yes, a Korean grandma stuffed a fish-sausage in my mouth. It wasn't too bad.

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