Today, after more than a year of build-up, I went on a mission to the fish market in Noryanjin, to eat that staple of every foreigner’s Seoul itinerary, san nak-ji — live baby octopus.
Like roller-coasters and Filipino lady-boys, the actual experience didn’t justify the nervous terror I’ve nurtured since resolving to go for the experience. While it was nothing to be afraid of, it was a dining experience unlike any I’ve ever had.
My friends and I stopped at a market stall and split one octopus three ways, so as to minimize the financial hit in the event that we found it too disgusting to finish. It cost 3,000 won (or there’s a deal: four for 10,000 won) and we took it in a plastic shopping bag to a little restaurant. We knelt on floor mats at a low table. The octopus was taken to the back and sliced up while we received a miserly selection of side dishes, both of which we were handsomely overcharged for.
In the time it took me to down two anticipatory shots of soju, our unfortunate entree was presented in an angered mass of slime and writhing. At least this was how I felt as I braced myself to go through with taking a bite of it. I’ve been told that eating san nak-ji is risky because the tentacles may stick to your throat on the way down, leading to:
- Hilarity for your friends
- Justified octopodal homicide from beyond the grave
(Note: The above are not necessarily mutually exclusive.)
My companions and I grabbed chopsticks and tried our best to pick up the angry writhing slimy tentacles, full of anger and writhing, with pitiful results. The tentacles were in “survival” mode, stuck fast to the serving dish.
Even after a year in Korea, I’m laughably feeble with the flat metal chopsticks found in restaurants. The tentacles exploited this weakness, buying a few more precious moments in their state of composition. One particularly determined segment of suckers rolled over the edge of the dish and stuck to its underside. I swear I heard it chuckle.
After enjoying my struggles for a couple of minutes, one of the wait staff gave me a pair of cheap wooden chopsticks usually included with convenience-store ramyeon. With my superior tools, I felt like Perseus as he approached Medusa with his mirror shield — fearful but confident in my chosen strategy. I had been told by many Koreans that the only way to prevent untimely death by choking on live octopus tentacles is to NEVER. STOP. CHEWING. (Nobody suggested that I might consider avoiding the dish altogether.)
At last, with a squirming, rage-filled section of tentacle pinched in my chopsticks, I dipped it in sesame oil, opened my mouth wide with my tongue to one side, and chewed it with my molars. It was irritatingly chewy, just like eating cooked octopus, and when I finally managed to swallow it I was ready for more.
My friends seemed to like it as well. The only piece we didn’t eat was the one with its eyeballs still intact — and I reckon its brain as well — because who wants to chew on a pair of living eyes?
–Daniel Daugherty, photos by Jen Pace