Life in Korea means eating seafood and lots of it.
Sure, we eat our fair share of fish out here — raw, grilled, boiled, and fried. But why stop there? The ocean is home to a bevy of delicacies such as octopus, squid, sea cucumbers, urchins, and gaebul (개불) — a flesh colored spoon worm affectionately known as the “penis fish”.
That’s right. As if eating a worm wasn’t bad enough on its own, this particular worm has to bear a disconcerting resemblance to the male reproductive organ.
Four years ago eating fish off the bone counted as an adventure. I preferred my fish filleted or included in an extra value meal. Now I don’t blink when they bring live octopus, boiled roe, or, yes, even penis fish to the table.
The way I see it, if you’re going to eat in Korea you may as well eat like a Korean. It’s a policy that, thankfully, hasn’t sent me to the ER with a case of acute food poisoning. Yet.
If you have a similarly adventurous policy to eating in Korea (and the ironclad stomach to survive said policy) read on for the good word about a fantastic foody experience in Busan!
Gwangalli Beach in Busan, Korea is a great place to chill and spend the day. We really loved our time there. Located on the north end of Gwangalli Beach is a ten-story building that occupies the better part of a city block.
From a distance this building looks like any other in Korea: Concrete, utilitarian, plentiful neon lights the sole concession to visual appeal. However, as you draw closer you begin to notice a couple of peculiarities.
First, the smell. A fish aroma is evident from many meters away. It’s not a bad smell — assuming you dig fish — but it certainly isn’t subtle.
Second, the hustle and bustle. Middle-aged men and women beckon to you from across the street. They wave, holler, cajole, entreat, plead, and curse. Some try to drag passing pedestrians into the building. One particularly exuberant woman has her arm inside the driver’s side window of a car. As the car begins to accelerate this woman does her best to keep up. It’s a losing battle. She finally gives up when the car’s driver pulls onto the main road and hits the gas.
Undaunted, the woman returns to her post out front of this building and resumes her spirited harangue.
Sounds like a hell of a place to have dinner, yes?
Welcome to Millak Raw Fish Town!
A dining experience at Millak Raw Fish Town (민락회타운) places the emphasis on “experience”.
This isn’t the sort of joint where you walk in, take a seat, and stare placidly between the sleepy covers of a menu. Oh no, my friends. This is a hands-on affair. Literally.
The first floor of Millak Raw Fish Town is a sprawling fish market. Buckets and baskets teeming with critters, creatures, and things that wouldn’t pass as “food” back home are everywhere. Fish spill onto the floor. Octopi slime about their plastic prisons. Shrimp and squid and crabs clamber in crowded aquariums. “Finding Nemo” it ain’t.
And somewhere amidst this crustaceous chaos is your dinner.
Overseeing the “meet-and-eat” portion of your visit is a batalion of gruff fishmongers. Typically middle-aged or older, these women (and they were all women the day we visited) are decked out in boots, rubber gloves, and a rubber apron. You’re job is to find something to eat. Their job is to make that search as fast-paced and stressful as possible.
If you’ve been to any other Korean market before you’ll know exactly what to expect.
If you’ve never been to a Korean market before imagine trying to buy live seafood while going through the security detail of Los Angeles International Airport on the busiest travel day of the year. It’s that kind of crazy.
After a moment of rushed deliberation we settled on a large sea bream (돔) for 30,000 won. Was this a decent price? Hard to say for sure, but I’d guess it was fair. As a rule, though, I’d suggest going in with a maximum amount you’re willing to spend and see how much fish that will get you. Be prepared to haggle.
You can also expect to receive a little “service”. We were given two delicious sea cucumbers and — wouldn’t you know it! — a handful of penis fish!
Almost time to eat. First you’ll need to pay the fishmonger. Yep, you pay for the fish on the first floor. You’ll pay a small preparation fee — plus for whatever beer, soju, or extras you’d like — at the restaurant.
The restaurant you dine at will be decided based upon who you bought the fish from. Don’t sweat it. All the restaurants come highly recommended. And besides, you already know the fish is going to be fresh!
Our restaurant was on the 8th floor. We had a lovely view of the beach at sunset. So far dinner was off to a promising start. And then out came the first course.
Remember the “service” our fishmonger threw in for free? That was our appetizer.
Look, I said I would eat anything in Korea. I said nothing about enjoying all of it.
If you couldn’t tell from the picture, sea cucumber and gaebul are seriously slimy.
You don’t so much chew and swallow it as fight off the gag reflex while it oozes its way down your esophagus. As far as the taste, does slimy count as a flavor?
I wasn’t expecting much out of these guys, and they delivered. Luckily, the main course didn’t take long to arrive and it was excellent.
If you’ve never had sea bream it is quite good. The texture is firm and light, and the flavor is mild. It doesn’t taste “fishy” at all. Here in Korea it is generally served raw and wrapped in a lettuce leaf with garlic and pepper paste (고추장) before being eaten.
As you’d expect, the fish was incredibly fresh. Busan is rightfully known for its raw fish (회) and Millak Raw Fish Town is amongst the best places you can go to enjoy it.
If you’re going to be in Busan and you want an adventurous eating experience, make sure to check out Millak Raw Fish Town.
You’ll first need to head to Gwangalli Beach.
To get there take Line 2 (the green line) to Gwangan station (광안역 no. 209) and use exits 3 or 4. A cab ride from Gwangan station to the beach should run you the minimum fare. If you want to hoof it, just head straight down the main road (광안리-로) that runs behind exits 3 and 4. It’s about a ten minute walk.
From the beach it’s a breeze getting to Millak Raw Fish Town. Just head north (face the water and turn left) and walk to the end of the beach. The giant, ten-story building at the north end of Gwangalli Beach is Millak Raw Fish Town.
If in doubt, just ask. Any of the locals in the area will be able to help you out.
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Such strange things out there, huh?
Indeed there are, Steve. This post is relatively tame compared to some of the things I’ve chowed down on!
I’m planning to visit Busan soon. Is it easy to buy a fish, know which restaurant to bring it to, and get it cooked without speaking Korean?
Yes, it’s super easy. Just follow the directions to Millak Raw Fish Town in the blog. The entire first floor of the building is a live fish market. Pick the fish that looks delish and a fishmonger will tell you where to go. (The restaurants are in the same building.) Enjoy the trip!