“To be great is to be misunderstood.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Busan, your accent has been the benchmark of any feared gangsters, your people mistaken as unsophisticated countryside peasants and your cuisine is supposed to consist only of seafood. Do not worry, being misunderstood is just a path to greatness. And you are a great city, Busan. Shall we explore and untangle these misunderstandings?
(Retrospective, May 2014)
On my way to Busan on the KTX, I can’t help but imagine Busan as the rough city where gangsters in Korean movie claimed their turf, spitting out profanities in Saturi (Southern dialect). I do blame Nameless Gangster for this unhealthy association. Two hours or so later, the real Busan reveals herself.
Not far from Busan Station, on the other side of the street is Chinatown, marked by a massive gate saying “Shanghai Street”. As you can see, it is more like Russiatown now. Well, Russiatown isn’t that accurate either. The residents here do speak Russian, but from brief conversations in Russian between my now-husband and the residents here, we’ve gathered that most of them are from Central Asia. Like any migrants, the moment Russian is heard, they perk up from their gloomy self to these chatterboxes and start offering you some pierogis (Russian dumplings). How typical!
Chinatown is this strange amalgamation of the street’s past and present. Dragon motifs with Cyrillic alphabet sitting side by side, telling the city’s story of past relationship with China, namely Shanghai and present Central Asian migrants’ assimilation to the modern Busan. It is its own little world, seemed quite removed from the very Korean Busan, despite Hangul scattered here and there. Heck, borscht (Russian beet soup) is offered in most restaurants here!
Busan is very navigable with her subway system. In no time, you can navigate to taste all of what Busan can offer by riding it. I guess first stop should naturally be what Busan is famous for: seafood at Jagalchi Market.
Like in the fish market in Tongyeong, you can expect live fish splashing about but in a much bigger scale. You would choose the seafood of your choice and how you like it done: sashimi hoe style, grilled or stewed. Once done, your fishmonger would tell you which restaurant vendors to go on upstairs. This is the challenge for the fearless: get yourself something really Korean- live octopus (산낙지, sannakji). Good luck.
Seafood isn’t the only thing on offer in Busan. Busan is also the home of pajeon (sping onion pancake). Located in Dongnae, northern part of Busan City, is this institution.
Dongnae Halmae Pajeon is indeed an institution, preserving their pajeon recipe for FOUR GENERATIONS! Pardon the caps lock, but rumour has it that it’s the recipe that served the King. Regardless of that, I take a bite and it is amazing. Hearty but light, crispy but moist, this pajeon has a richer flavour than the usual one you can at a Korean pub. Down it with a good bowl of makgeolli (Korean unfiltered sweeter rice wine), it is perfect.
Looking for more options besides Korean, you might consider some Taiwanese Chinese food instead. Near Haeundae, opened by a Taiwanese-Korean chef, Red Door is a surprise for me because it has managed to made Chinese food, well, authentic. I’ve had bad experiences in “Chinese” restaurants in Korea, to only have Koreanised Chinese food on the menu, like jajangmyeon (black bean noodle) and jjampong (spicy seafood noodle). I’m ashamed to say that we actually have no photos of the food in Red Door. We were too hungry, hence we just scoffed them without a second thought. But I’ve got a photo the pretty table setting?
There you go, in Part 1 of Busan: The Misunderstood City, we all know that Busan is actually a very cosmopolitan city with a history of international contact, while holding on to some amazing Korean food culture. And I haven’t met a gangster yet. Just a lot of passionate Southerners who just love a good chat, loudly. More about that next week.
From Seoul, take the KTX train from Seoul Station. It should cost you around 59,800 Won one way. It should take you around 3 hours.
From Daejeon, should you be closer there, take the KTX train from Daejeon Station. It should cost you around 36,000 Won one way. It should take you around 2 hours.
To get to
Chinatown Special Zone:
Line 1 to Busan Station, and take the underpass to reach the street. You should be greeted by a massive Shanghai Street sign.
Line 1 to Jagalchi Station, Exit 10. Keep walking towards the sea on your east. You should be able to identify it by the fishy smell.
Dongnae Halmae Pajeon:
Line 1 to Dongnae Station, Exit 2. It’s complicated from here. Walk to the first light and cross the street, walk right and turn left at the first road beside KT Plaza. Turn right past the motels and you’ll see it on the left. Beware of a fake one around the corner. It should be this really bright place with a beautiful garden. (Courtesy of Lonely Planet)
Line 2 to Jung-dong Station, Exit 10. Keep going up the hill till you see it on your left.