It’s Alive!

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.

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The sign to Noryanjin Fish Market

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.

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Daniel looks down at the fish market.

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.

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The view from above the fish market.

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.

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Daniel pays for a single octopus.

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"I finally got him."

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

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"I'm pretty sure he's aware of what's just taken place."

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14 Comments

Filed under Culture in a Dish

14 responses to “It’s Alive!

  1. Omg…that is hilarious, disgusting and awesome all in one. Not sure I’d be brave enough to try it (actually I can promise I wouldn’t be). Definitely enjoy reading your blog – you & Jen always have something fun/interesting/weird to talk about!

    • Daniel Daugherty

      You would make a great camera person for your friends, then!

      Thanks for always checking in, I’ve noticed we get regular hits from your blog 🙂 Oh, and congrats to you and Ross on the wedding. Poor Aaron, though… always a bridesmaid…

  2. David

    Wow, awesome read too! It kept me in suspense, although I had a strong feeling of 80% chance that you would have ate it and liked it, versus not. Reminds me of this one time, a guy ate an entire squid and the tentacles were sticking out of his mouth and sucked onto his cheeks. It was bizarre! Bravo!

  3. don

    what is next..? Smoked scorpion or dog meat jerky??!!

    I would of bought the four pack!!! Glad to see you are living life and not just sitting on the sidelines like most people!!!

  4. cindy

    Daniel, what a great read!! Everything down to how you told the story was really good!
    I can’t believe you ate it! But, if you weren’t going to eat it, you wouldn’t have gone there in the first place! BRAVO, AND KUDOS to you! As you know I have also tried foods from other countries, but I think I would have to pass on this. Unless of course I was with you, because you would have PRESSURED ME to do it! LOL

  5. don

    Your uncle David would take a bluefish off the hook, and gut it quickly..then toss the still beating heart into his mouth and swallow it. All the other fisherman near him would move further down the beach to get away from the crazy bastard!
    Leaving more surf and beachfront for him to cast in!!!

    He said it would beat and beat in his stomach for some minutes…. too cool!!!!

  6. chris

    Was it really only as chewy as cooked squid? This part disappointed me, I was really expecting some sort of extreme hyperbole about the texture. I am now less impressed by you eating it, and more impressed by your willingness to eat it (because of the risk of disgusting-ness and suctioning on to your throat). Did they have any other oils to dip it in?…you know, because what if you don’t like sesame??

    • Daniel Daugherty

      Yeah, re-reading it I’m not happy with my description of its chewiness, but cooked octopus pretty much the chewiest thing i can think of… oh, except salt-water taffy. That would have been a more universal comparison, I think. Damn.

      If you didn’t like sesame oil, they had a spicy garlic and red bean sauce with little diced chiles in it. I mostly ate that one, but I think the sesame oil is traditional

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  8. Karla

    I think I’m going to be sick. That’s it. That’s all I can say.

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  10. Thanks an interesting read for what’s in store for me when I do it. Jen put me onto your site. I’m a little confused did the restaurant prepare it by cutting it up or did you spit out the head so as not to eat the eyeballs?
    Nice one and please take a look at my blog @ jdbrownlie.wordpress.com

  11. Jen Pace

    i just saw your comment, sorry for not replying sooner! the restaurant cut it up for us…

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