Friday, June 08, 2007

Odessa Fish Market

Just next to the Odessa Train station there is a huge, sprawling marketplace offering fresh produce, plastic shoes, Uzbek dried apricots, pink hair ornaments, just about anything that a happy Odessan could want. Including fish.Especially fish. Above are pickled mussels sold by a Korean pickle seller. Well over a half million Koreans live in the former Soviet Union, where they are known as Koryo-saram, and they have been there since the mid-19th century, mainly working as rice farmers. Through their influence, Russians are well acquainted with all kinds of radical kimchee and korean pickles - sea weed kimchee was available in every shop that sold fish, for example.Koreans from Russia were the first to introduce communism into Korean politics, and one of Russia's most beloved rock stars, Viktor Tsoi, was a Koryo-saram. Kim Jong-Il, the madman leader of North Korea, was born in the village of Vyatskoye near Khabarovsk, where his father, Kim Il-sung, commanded a battalion of the Soviet Red army, made up of Chinese and Korean exiles.
Sturgeon for sale. Russians and Ukrainians eat a lot of smoked sturgeon, and caviar is offered at every market, but this was the first time I saw whole sturgeon for sale. Sturgeon poaching for the illicit caviar trade is endangering populations in many areas, so I wasn't surprised that the sturgeon sellers weren't too happy about having their photograph taken. On the other hand, a jumping sturgeon almost killed a woman in florida in April, so let's not get to sentimental about them. They can be bad fish. Smoked fish. In American Jewish food tradition we retain a fondness for smoked fish in many forms - lox for our bagels, for instance, or "smoked sable" which is essentially Alaskan black cod smoked in an almost perfect imitation of smoked sturgeon. Smoked whitefish, which is a staple of New York's Jewish "appetizing" shops, obviously has its Yiddish roots in the Odessa fish market. In the Ukraine, however, most of the fish are either mackeral, herring or various unsavory looking fresh water species. We bought one of these smoked babies (foreground) to take home and try out. It was incredibly salty and just about inedible. Of course I ate it all. But when it comes to inedible... there is always one more border to cross...Dried fish, or vobla is a common Russian snack. Vobla is generally eaten with a glass of beer, which balances the salty taste of the fish. Vobla could be considered as raw fish, but it is, in fact, salt-cured. It is soaked in brine for two weeks and then is thoroughly air-dried for another two, which in the end acts as a form of chemical cooking. As my buddy Igor explains it "Vobla takes the role of chips when you drink beer." You strip bits of salty dried fish meat off the bones and chase it with a swig of beer. I bought a packet of pre-stripped vobla and gave it a try... and gagged. It was... incredibly... horrible. I met my match. I surrender. Vobla wins. I still have two packages sitting in the kitchen waiting for some homesick Russian to show up at my door... How about this: take the lowly pike, which confounds fish lovers by having delicious flesh but is riddled with lots of tiny Y-shaped bones... and give it the vobla treatment. Mmmm... dried salty Y-shaped bones...Basic pork butcher's offerings include blood sausage, bacon, pig's ears, and salo, a raw pig fat delicacy that Ukrainian love. Living in Hungary I'm pretty well versed in the art of pig sushi, so I wasn't at all surprised. I'll write more later on the Ukrainian cult of salo.Free range chicken? And next to that, some very large hares. Trucks offer live carp swimming in their tanks. The owner dips in a net, pulls one out, whacks it on the head with a club, and places it in a plastic bag. Often the carp are only stunned and jump to life while taking them home on the tram. Happened to me once in Budapest. I do not like carp much. At all. It is the number one fish consumed in eastern Europe, if not the world, but carp doesn't do it for me. Soft fatty flesh, tastes like mud, lots of floating Y-shaped bones. Basically, carp is a pig with fins. My opinion of carp can be summed up in one small linguistic pecadillo: the Romanian word for carp. Says it all...

1 comment:

Joel said...

"Crap în sos tomat"--story of my life. Actually, in the Pacific, it's usually mackeral in tomato sauce.