Garak Market

6 May

Garak Market isn’t even the biggest market in Seoul.  Noryangjin holds that honor.  But that doesn’t stop Garak from being a huge, fascinating place.  The sheer scale of the food distribution is impressive.  Have you ever seen an entire warehouse of leeks?  Or mushrooms packed into styrofoam crates?  Trucks are constantly moving about, almost running over anyone who isn’t fast enough on their toes, three-wheeled carts haul smaller loads, people are yelling and shouting and running to and fro.   That’s the wholesaling operations, though.  The seafood area is a little more tame, though the vendors are no less active in searching for your business.

The floors are covered in standing water from constantly overflowing tanks.  The whole place has an overwhelming smell of the sea.  The sellers will grab a flounder and sling it into a basket at your feet, the flounder flopping around and splashing you with fishy water as you try to concentrate on negotiating the price.

I have never seen such beautiful products of the sea in all my life.  This is not your average piece of white cod at Red Lobster in Tulsa.

It ain’t cheap.  Two small, live octopuses (I would write octopi but Google Chrome marks it as incorrect) cost about W20,000.  But totally worth it when chopped, still living, into writhing pieces and dumped onto a platter, your serving of san nakji ready for consumption with ssamjang. Vegans, Buddhists, and kosher eaters, be horrified: there is no compassion in chomping away on something whose suckers still clamp onto the inside of your mouth.

If you can conceive of it coming from the sea, Garak Market has it.  And there will be hardworking people working until late hours selling it to you, making little money but still happy and welcoming, willing to smile and laugh at the slightest provocation.

We left to the sound of the auctioneers warbling into the warm night.  Each has a signature method of calling the price, a distinct rhythm and sound. There are women aplenty at Garak, especially in the seafood section; Korea only functions because of its women, who work like mad at the most tough and mundane tasks.  But the wholesale business is strictly man’s work:

Korea’s connection to food is much stronger than America’s.  Whether it is selecting seafood at a market or buying greens from the old woman crouched on the street corner outside swank office buildings or seeing people gardening in the land between highway ramps, the process of growing and getting food is visible in everyday life.  And even though Americans pride themselves on being outdoorsy people and supporting “sustainable” or “organic” or whatever other flavor of farming you can conceive of, we understand the necessity of working on the land much less than the highly urbanized Koreans. We are separated from toil because we have the physical space to push dirty and inconvenient activities out of our neatly manicured lives.  Korea is small; there is no escaping the sight and reality of using and even exploiting the land for living.  Something to consider next time you’re at Whole Foods.

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One Response to “Garak Market”

  1. thebobster 15 May 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    I’ve only read a couple of your posts but I assure you I will continue. You write well, and you exhibit a far greater level of thoughtfulness and clarity about Korea than most people get in their first year here.

    Truth is, I’m sorry to read you’ll be leaving in the next 6 weeks. I hope you continue blogging wherever you go next.

Inveigh against me.

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