You’ll find these doctors in spas from Croatia to Singapore, Belgium to China. My own consultation was in Seoul, South Korea where several dozen little fish were gleefully dining on my feet. Literally, chomping down with gusto, hold the mayo, extra toe jam please. They’re called Doctor Fish, also known as “nibble” or “kangal” fish, although the scientific community calls them garra rufa. Originating in Turkey, these bottom feeders are sought the world over by sufferers of psoriasis, an icky skin condition. Reason being, they just love to to eat flaky dead skin cells, rejuvenating your feet in the process to leave them soft and shiny.
Unlike piranhas, which have trouble distinguishing disposable edibles from your essential body parts, Dr. Fish have evolved to only nibble what you don’t need, attracted to dead skin, calluses, corns, and other delightful things you like to share with your neighbours in the local public pool. Although they don’t heal skin conditions, they are known to relieve the symptoms. Lord knows I’ve eaten enough fish in my time, so it was time to give something back to a species that has given me so much.
Like many spas in Seoul, the Sea La La Spa and Waterpark is a haven of relaxation. There’s various types of saunas, dozens of jet pools, steam baths, pools, Jacuzzis, meditation rooms, even coffin-sized private caverns where you can slide inside and doze off free of distraction (unless you choose the caverns with the TV sets and DVD players). The Dr Fish pool is located at the back of the giant indoor pool plaza, and costs about $10 for a 15-minute soak. There are two ponds, one containing the garra rufa, and another containing a larger species of fish called Chin Chin. Although the spa claims both eat your dead skin, I subsequently learn that Chin Chin (or kissing fish) are impostors, nibbling away without actually giving any of the medicinal benefits. In fact, some experts reckon they could actually spread diseases instead, which makes sense considering they spend their days kissing complete strangers. I approach the garra rufa pond, sit down, dip my feet in the water, and wait for the feast.
Flaked Esrock is all the rage in underwater culinary circles. After an initial tasting by one bold fish (who must have been an important food critic), dozens proceed to munch away, selecting the heel, toe or underside the way we might select a cut of steak. The sensation is one third pins and needles, one third tickle, and one third “holy crap, I’m being eaten alive by tiny hungry fish.” It’s important to remain still, after all, we don’t like it when our dinner plate moves around either. When your time is up, your feet are left refreshed, radiant, free of excess dead skin, corns, and other itchy conditions you might find in a locker room.
The Chin Chin in the other pool may not be real Dr Fish, but this species of tilapia actually have teeth, which means their bite is worse than their, em, blow? They approach my feet like bandits, and this time I practically hit the roof as they attack. I haven’t squirmed this much since I mistakenly told a Bolivian political leader his wife looked like goat cheese (it was a slight mispronunciation). The real Dr Fish (who display their medical certificates proudly underwater against the pond tiles) are far more professional in their poolside manner.
I once knew a real Dr Fish, and I was mentally spiralling out of control at the prospect of a dermatologist named Dr Fish treating his patients with Dr Fish. Turkey passed a law protecting garra rufa from “commercial exploitation” over fears of they’d be exploited, but it’s not as simple as filling your bath tub with the fish to start a spa. Conditions, ranging from water temperature to diet, have to be ideal before the garra rafa will want to feed on your scales. Spas in Asia and Europe are faster to act, stocking their pools with Dr Fish before they’ve even had time to earn their medical degree (much less pay off their student loans). I left Sea La La with glistening feet, nigh a cell of toe jam, and wondered if I could somehow charge this consultation to my medical insurance plan.