Thanks to a pink aluminium baseball bat, I’ll remember this dinner as long as I live. The cuisine is fine, the service attentive, the setting highly unusual, but the baseball bat is the standout image.
Sokcho, on South Korea’s east coast, is not a visually attractive town. Once a simple fishing village, it has become a holiday resort, with a regular population of perhaps 200,000 and a hotchpotch of nondescript concrete apartment blocks catering for the tourists who flock across from Seoul, attracted by its beach and nearby national park.
The waterfront, like so many in the world, is cursed with a busy road and gaudy signs in front of ugly buildings. Any view to the sea is blocked by rows of identical beach umbrellas. I don’t mind; I didn’t come here to bask in the sun or shoot the waves anyway.
‘Let’s not waste much time seeing the harbour,’ says my local guide Sonia, ‘Korean harbours are all the same.’ I’ll take her word for that; Sokcho Harbour is just a couple of L-shaped concrete jetties enclosing a cluster of not particularly picturesque boats.
Sonia has brought me here for the fish market, and that is seriously interesting. Small fish and squid hang drying on racks, stalls sell steaming snacks cooked before our eyes and rows of tanks hold enough weird writhing sea creatures to stock the Sydney Aquarium.
There are fish and crustaceans of every colour, shape and size. My favourites are the flatfish, the asymmetrical sort where one eye is peering round the edge to see what’s happening up on the surface. Then there are puffy orange things like bloated octopus tentacles, but with hairy roots. And there are pinkish slugs that look like, well there’s no other way to describe them; they look rather like penises.
Sonia has a translation dictionary in her mobile phone. Of course she does; Koreans love their electronic gadgets. A couple of buttons pressed and the puffy orange things are identified as animal, not vegetable. ‘Sea squirts,’ she says, leaving me not much the wiser. Her dictionary doesn’t know an English word for the pink slugs, but I expect if they really were penises it would have said so.
A hawker dips her hand into a tank of squirming squid and pulls one out, laying it on the bench in front of her. It’s about a foot long and obviously very much alive. With a razor sharp knife she deftly guts it, skins it, chops it into little blocks, lays it in a polystyrene tray, covers it in cling wrap and hands it to her customer – still wriggling. The whole process has taken less than twenty seconds. It’s hard to actually declare the squid dead yet and I’m still squirming a little myself.
We find a restaurant with a table and chairs. That may sound odd, but most diners in this part of the world sit cross-legged on mats, and my creaky knees have already had enough of that sort of thing on this trip.
There’s a bit of negotiation with the tough-looking man at the restaurant door, who carries that pink aluminium baseball bat. Is this perhaps this is a known rough joint, where rowdies need to be evicted? We’re allowed in. They have just two tables with chairs, but they’re up on the outside balcony. We take off our shoes and shuffle past yoga experts dining on the floor. From the balcony we have a perfect vantage point for watching a wonderful street show in the market below.
The waitress gives our table a quick wipe and brings a sheet of clear plastic, which she wraps across its surface, bunching it untidily around the umbrella pole in the middle. This is clearly not going to be five star dining but I sense it is going to be a very unusual experience.
I say I’ll eat anything, even trying sea squirts and penises. A collection of interesting side dishes appears and Sonia orders ”mo-deum hwae”, a Korean version of sashimi (raw fish).
There’s a commotion below us. A large flapping fish is tossed onto the street, the tough guy steps forward with that pink baseball bat and clubs it to death. Two minutes later a platter of raw fish slices appears at our table. Yes, any fish I’ve ever eaten has been killed somehow, somewhere, but the murder usually takes place discreetly out of sight. I’m glad I didn’t ask for veal.
We dip the strips of fish into bowls of sauce – chilli and wasabi – then wrap them in scraps of lettuce and pop them in our mouths. It’s not moving any more, but it certainly is fresh. And delicious. To follow there’s a fabulous soup made of the head and tail of our fish.
The show in the street below continues. A lady pushing a handcart laden with peaches is blocking the path of a truck with a water tank on top. The truck is delivering live fish to the stalls. People chatter, laugh and haggle. Wet money is exchanged.
The sun sets and over by the harbour squealing fireworks shoot into the sky and explode in clouds of stars. Letting off fireworks is something you do on a beach holiday here, I’m told.
The bill comes and Sonia apologises. ‘It’s so much more expensive to eat by the waterfront.’ But the damage is less than $20 a head; I’ve paid so much more elsewhere to eat very ordinary food and without the fabulous dinner show. And wait, there’s more…a full moon rises, gorgeous and yellow, out of the sea.
‘Would you like the last penis, Richard?’
‘Er, I couldn’t eat another thing, but thanks anyway. It’s been a great evening.’
The writer was the guest of Korea Tourism Organisation
Getting there: Buses from Seoul to Sokcho leave every hour, take about 2.5 hours and cost 23,000won (about US$20) one way.
Staying there: Kensington Stars Hotel near Sukcho has double rooms from 116,045won. For other accommodation in Gangwon-do province, see visitkorea.or.kr.
Further information: See english.visitkorea.or.kr.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney