Snapshots from Seoul: Noryangjin Fish Market

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

As the seafood hub of a town that loves seafood, Noryangjin market in Seoul, South Korea, sees plenty of aquatic action. Daily seafood auctions take place in the wee hours of the morning between 1 and 6 a.m. every day, and while not as cutthroat or exciting as the wholesale tuna auctions that take place across the sea in Tokyo's Tsukiji market, it's still no place for the faint of heart or the open-toe-shoed.

Founded in 1927, Noryangjin Fish Market moved to its current Central Seoul location in 1971. Walking down the chilly aisle at 5 a.m. as the wholesale auctions are wrapping up but before the retail customers arrive in throngs is probably the best time to go, though I've heard the relative calm of the afternoon affords you more time to poke your way through the cavernous space. You've still got to watch yourself as you pick through the 700+ individual stalls or you're likely to get flopped in the face by a flying flounder or sprayed by a splashing spinefish.

Nearly all the seafood in the market is held live in aquariums, tubs, and styrofoam boxes of whose range of shapes and sizes is only bested by that of the fish contained within them. Boxes of prawns the size of your forearm. Tanks of cuttlefish with mesmerizing changing colors and patterns. Octopus of all sizes from no bigger than a gold ball to longer than a man. King crabs with four-foot leg-spans and giant wriggling sea cucumbers blindly bumping into the plexiglass walls of their enclosures.

If you're hungry (and who isn't hungry after walking through a cavern that smells of fish at 5 a.m.?), there's no better place to get fresh seafood. Walk up to any one of the stalls and talk to the owner and they'll arrange for you to pick out a fish of your choice, kill it for you on the spot, then pass it off to a servers from one of the many restaurants that line the market's perimeter. The chef will serve the flesh raw, sashimi-style with soy sauce and wasabi, while the bones and other tissues will be boiled into a spicy soup flavored with Korean chili and plenty of green onions and fermented soy bean. Wash it all down with some ice cold soju. Breakfast of champions, indeed!

Check out the slideshow for a look at what to expect in the market.