Cooking Garak (Market)
11 a.m. Buddha’s Birthday. Read Urban is on his way down to my neighborhood for a hike up Namhansan. The weather looks terrible. Backup plan: we cook
Read arrives in Bokjeong, a neighborhood without a great market. I work in Miasamgeori, and there you can hardly walk down the street without tripping over a pile of fresh cabbage or watermelons. Not so in Bokjeong. Here there are just a few little grocery stores, with wilted and expensive produce and mostly-frozen seafood.
We drink strong coffee and look out the window at Namhansan. The clouds are foreboding; just you try and hike, they say. We contemplate our backup plan.
“What do you want to cook?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to cook?”
We nearly set off for the little grocery store up the street, the one that smells like rotting vegetables. Then I have an idea -- Garak Market is just a few kilometers from here. Want to check it out?
I had heard about Garak from some of the expats who live in Bokjeong. They told me they ride there on bikes, up the Tancheon. They buy up big bags of veggies, then split the bill and the haul. I always imagined something like the markets in Miasamgeori -- old, crowded, with decent produce for decent prices. I had told a Korean about a month before that I live near Garak, and he said, “Oh, you must eat good seafood.” That was the first time I heard of Garak as a source of seafood. I thought Noryangjin was the only serious place to buy fresh fish and shellfish in Seoul.
When we get to Garak, the weather has gotten worse. The clouds are a deep gray and pregnant with rain. The wind has picked up, too.
I had expected the actual market part of Garak to be ramshackle and small. It is huge, actually a series of warehouse-like buildings. Massive blue signs with stylized drawings denote what is sold inside each building. It looks more like an empty fairground than a market. We start up one of the avenues between the warehouses.
It’s then we notice that the avenues between buildings are markets in themselves. The avenue we’re walking down is lined with ajummas and ajoshis selling produce off of stands made of crates and cardboard boxes.
We pass a stand selling chili peppers. “Look how bright those are,” Read says. The peppers are a vibrant red I haven’t seen before. They practically glow in the gloomy weather. As we walk along the avenue, I notice that each stand of chili peppers is a slightly different color. Some are the vibrant red of before, others are a deep crimson -- almost the color of blood.
We’re only a few steps down the avenue, and already we’ve picked out several veggies to cook. The first thing we buy is a bag of variegated bell peppers -- two kilos for 2,000 won. The peppers are a mix of green, red and orange; a few days later they would all turn red. We’re shocked by the price of the peppers. Usually 2,000 would only buy a few; we get 30 or more.
Again and again we are shocked by the prices at Garak. We buy softball-sized beets (1,500 won each), a massive yellow “grandfather cucumber” (1,500 won), purple heads of unpeeled garlic (5 for 1,500 won) and a bundle of 15 or so asparagus spears (2,500). An old man next to us buys an armload of celery for 2,000 per bunch. What on earth is he going to do with all that celery? I think. But the ajumma hands over bunch after bunch like it’s nothing special.
By the time we get to the avenue we’re carrying several kilos of fresh produce. Read is already brainstorming recipe ideas. We head toward the seafood section. The powerful smell of fish greets us before we can even see the market.
I expect Garak to be inferior to Noryangjin, its more famous seafood-market cousin, and again I am surprised. Garak actually opened in 1985 and was Korea’s first public wholesale market. It sprawls at more than 500,000-square-meters. Standing at any one part of the market, you can only see a small fraction of what’s actually there.
Read and I enter the seafood market and take stock. The interior is familiar. Little rivulets of water run to rusty grates across concrete floors. The entire floor surface of the market is wet, and the people working there stay dry with thick rubber boots, gloves and aprons. The market is abuzz; people drive through on motorbikes, push giant welded-iron carts of Styrofoam boxes, and carry baskets of fish by hand. An old man picks up snail shells out of a box and taps at the little snails inside.
The tables in the market are loaded with all the seafood you’d find at Noryangjin: meter-long flounder, sleek amberjack, sinister-looking silver hairtail. An ajumma sits amid stacks of Styrofoam boxes, a round, six-inch-thick cutting board covered with fish scales next to her. In addition to fish, the market has loads of shellfish -- crabs, scallops, mussels, razor clams.
We decide to get a monkfish and start looking around for a nice one. We find a two-kilo specimen looking like the ugliest creature on earth. How did such a hideous fish get such a saintly name? We ask how much it is. 15,000 won. We’ll take it. The ajumma selling it begins cleaning it by hacking off its prominent lower jaw. She chops it into three pieces and we stop her before she gets to the meaty tail. I’ve never had monkfish, but Read used to cook them in Virginia and knows to keep the tail intact.
We pick up a line of six plum-sized scallops for good measure (10,000 won) and hail a cab out of the market. One of the biggest complaints about Garak is that it’s too congested. Today, there’s no traffic. Driving back, a storm seems imminent.
In the cab, Read lays out the menu: to start, pan-seared scallops with a kumquat butter sauce served on a slice of the grandfather cucumber. For the main course, pan-roasted monkfish with asparagus and a roasted red pepper relish, finished off with fresh lemon juice.
As Read deveins, debones, and de-membranes the monkfish, a beautiful white fillet begins to emerge. In Virginia, Read says, monkfish is called the “poor man’s lobster.” When he’s done, he has a firm piece of white meat that looks just like a lobster tail.
We open a bottle of bourbon and drink as Read cooks our catch. Outside, the rain has come.