Monday, May 16, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 29: Smaller Fish

The english waves come inAbout 'Open Mike in Busan'


The new season at Busan e-FM has seen some changes, and one of them is a new segment which precedes mine called "Bigger Fish". The title derives from its coverage of literature and by extension philosophical issues which are the bigger questions we often rarely stop to consider in the prisons of trivia we build for ourselves in our daily lives. The content is thought provoking and I'm glad that the station is pushing the envelope as far as its material is concerned.

During my time with the station I'd like to think I've covered some hard-hitting subjects, even if a lot of it has been secretly dressed up under the guise of my personal experiences in Korea and hardly anyone noticed. But some of it - like today - isn't tackling racism, social inequality or anything philosophically substantive - so I titled today's topic 'smaller fish', proving that in the absence of other targets, I can always take a shot at myself.

Someone new to the station said that they'd worked out what most of the other segments were about, but not yet mine. I've been joking for some weeks that as I exhaust my pool of personal experiences and move into personal thoughts and opinions, my segments have increasingly become, in a Seinfeld-type of way 'about nothing' - although possibly without the humour - because there is no common theme running through them. In fact, this is now a running joke with my wife every time something trivial happens, punctuated with the punchline 'and that's a show' - as I struggle with the question of what I'm really going to talk about on air over the next few months. Maybe it doesn't matter anyway; I think the modus operandi at the station is to just plow on regardless sometimes - I suppose that's the mindset live radio creates for you.


This week I'm returning to the subject of food - to talk about a specific type, and that's fish. I quickly discovered the importance of fish here, and perhaps a particular type of seafood is sometimes shocking for foreigners - and that's live seafood.

Going coastal

I’d been in Korea three weeks when my wife suggested that we go to the seafront to ‘eat fresh seafood’ with her mother, in an area of Busan with a harbour and a fishing fleet, from which you can take it that the fish are supposed to be especially fresh, even by the local standard of preferring freshly killed seafood – hence the large number of tanks crammed with barely surviving creatures you see on many streets.

Let me explain how this kind is in England. First of all, we don’t have those kind of tanks – the animal anti-cruelty groups would never stand for it, but we also don’t have much of a culture of eating really fresh - or raw - fish. Given that this is the case, freshness is less important because everything is going to be cooked anyway. But this isn’t to say we don’t have areas where the seafood is perceived to be better because we have fishing fleets there – we do, and when northern English people - ‘northerners’ - go to places like this, we’ll quite often seek out a good meal of ‘fish and chips’.

Fish and chips

Typically, ‘fish and chips’ consists of de-boned haddock or cod in batter, with thickly-cut potatoes fried at very high temperatures in industrial fryers, which makes them impossible to cook properly at home. A slice of lemon may be squeezed over the fish, and the chips are sprinkled with salt and a type of vinegar which seems impossible to find in Korea. It’s a very difficult dish to get right – for example, the potatoes taste different depending on the season and some times are better than others, and if the fish is cooked too long it becomes dry and unsatisfying.

Fish and chips became a popular meal among the British working class – partly because it was filling and inexpensive. When I was young it was really the only type of take-away there was in the working class areas I lived in. In that sense – it is similar to the cheaper seafood dishes in Busan which Korea’s working class eat.

When I came to Korea I assumed it would be impossible to eat fish and chips here. In fact, I worked out that the nearest fish and chip shop was in Australia. But I was wrong, because then I discovered that there actually was a proper fish and chip shop in Haeundae – inevitably – set up by a British expatriate. He wrote on one of the Internet forums here about the difficulty of setting up the business and getting the food right, and he even mentioned the near impossibility of getting the right type of vinegar. [Unfortunately it appears it's since closed].

The Battle of Songdo Bay

So, three weeks after arriving here I went with my mother-in-law and wife to Songdo Bay, a coastal area near us in the west of Busan that is regarded as a good place to eat raw fish. At that point I hadn’t even seen the sea in Busan yet, so given what I’ve said about fish and chips, I had it in my mind that we’d be dining in some sort of restaurant with a window view over the sea. The fish wouldn’t be haddock or cod, but rather some local variety, and Korean Mother might be eating something more exotic such as octopus.

But, as in often the case in my life in Korea, there was a considerable gap between my expectations and the reality which played out. It was windy and raining heavily. The restaurant was a seafront tent, in fact so close to the seafront that the tide was coming in and out of about half of the tent, which creates an interesting theme. There was no menu, but the food was picked from large bowls outside - most of it was unidentifiable and some of it was frightening. My mother-in-law picked some kind of sea slugs - which later I discovered were called 개불 - which was meant to be good for vitality. Ten minutes later thy were on her plate - minus their insides - but the loss of their internal organs was not stopping them trying to escape. I'm told they can live for up to thirty minutes like this. Then she chased the creatures round the plate with her chopsticks, which only seemed to make them angrier. I'd been here three weeks at that point as I witnessed the unfolding horror, and I thought, "What am I doing here?" and "Who are these people?"

I didn't try the 개불. I kept waiting for my 'when in Rome' moment, but it didn't happen. Even my wife wasn't eating them. Then I made a bit of a mistake. As the last few creatures tried to hide in a corner of the plate, I voiced my thought to my mother-in-law that these creatures would still be moving around in her stomach. For some reason apparently she'd never really thought about this before. So she continued, but without the same level of enthusiasm. The next day she didn't feel well, and it was two years before she ate 개불 again, which I feel partly responsible for. [More details and video here].

Bring your own fish restaurant

I haven’t eaten any other live fish here. In fact, the longer I stayed here the more I was put off by the idea. I’ll tell you the problem. Sunday was parents’ day so my mother-in-law once again wanted to eat fresh fish – we went down to Dadaepo Harbour this time, where the restaurants are just over the road from where the fishing fleet is docked.

Now it turns out that the type of ‘restaurant’ she wants to go to was one where you bring your own food, so she walked into one of the markets and before I had time to realise what was about to happen a two-foot long fish was pulled from a bowl, it’s neck or spine was immediately broken and the chopping along with the associated blood-splattering began, even though it was still moving. Then it was taken to the restaurant with us where it was prepared. I'm afraid it doesn't do much for my appetite. When I explained to my wife what I'd be talking about on the radio today, she said that the way I describe it, it "kind of sounds a bit disgusting". But then the next thing she said was "I'm hungry." Maybe it's a cultural thing.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-05-11 @ ~19:30

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