Living abroad always gives me a unique opportunity to experience college classes in every day life. Anthropology classes through studying the cultural practices and differences (see: bowing instead of handshakes, 7am wake-up calls to a man walking around with a cart looking for cardboard, silent subways, averted eyes, neat clothing, quiet dinner tables, loud bars) gender studies (see: women’s clothing, smoking amongst genders – men can smoke, women can’t be seen smoking), language classes (see: um… everyday?), and culinary classes (see: working with the ingredients that are in the markets, convenience stores, grocery stores, real culinary classes, and adventures into restaurants with friends who know what’s good).
As I’ve mentioned before, one of my obsessions in Korean cuisine is the red pepper paste. Another, is the marked freshness of the ingredients. Most of the produce you get off the back of a truck that’s just come from the market that’s just that morning gotten most of their stock. And the seafood, well, we’ve all seen that some people (myself included) like to take to the iced-over lakes, fish out small minnow-like fish, dunk them in sauce, and chow down.
If you’re asking yourself “Where is this story going?” then I’d advise you to read the last sentence. We’re going live, again.
The live fish are about as fresh as you can get. But, upon one fatal bite, the fish stop moving, and are simply like sashimi, just with a few more scales. So why not take it a step further: something that fights back a bit.
In Korea, there is an ingredient that is present all over the cuisine. I guess I never gave it a second thought as to being strange because when I first arrived, I took everything is as new and acceptable, but I would have to admit that eating dried octopus isn’t the first thing I’d think about eating a baseball game, or at a pit stop on a road trip. I guess octopus might not be the first thing I’d put into bibimbap, or fry up with rice. It also wouldn’t be the first thing that I’d eat live.
Oops, the cat is out of the bag: I ate live octopus. And no, it wasn’t an accident. It has been one of my goals while in Korea. I’ve heard that there are two real ways to eat live octopus, one is where you point to a baby squid in the tank out front, they take it out of the tank, and simply put it in front of you. It takes a little maneuvering as to deal with the beak, the head, as well as the moving and suctioning tentacles. The other way, is they cut off the tentacles and put them, writhing and all, onto a plate next to a bowl of red pepper paste, chopped fresh garlic, and a bowl of kimchi. How quaint and Korean.
I went with the tamer version, if you can call eating something alive tame, where they cut up the tentacles.
Three points of note.
One: the tentacles will move for about an hour after they say their farewells to the body. If you think they’re dead, poke them with your chopstick and see them dance!
Two: You have to chew. A lot. Because the suction cups will (and did) attach themselves to the roof of your mouth. Or your tongue. Or your cheek. Or your esophagus if you don’t give it enough time between your teeth. My first bite, I chewed most likely for seven minutes, really trying to make sure it was dead.
Three: It does have a flavor. A lot of the allure of eating something alive is more for the experience, rather than the actual taste. But I do have to advocate for the taste behind the live octopus. Obviously, at first it tastes like the sauce you dunk it in, but as that subsides and you find yourself still chewing because you might be a little afraid of the fatal factor of the octopus, it has a very… fresh taste. Light, subtle, but still rich and almost earthy – the tentacle’s flavor could be recognized, unlike the live fish. I wouldn’t make an ice cream flavor out of it, but it was delicious nonetheless.
Side note: About one person dies of live octopus a year. It’s normally an old man that doesn’t have the jaw power… not some foreigner that just doesn’t know what’s going on.
While playing with my food (sorry parents, I know you taught me my manners, but this food dances), my friend and I tried to discuss normal things like future plans and travel, but really the conversation always dodged back to the fact that what we were eating was alive. It was an experience I was trying to put into some frame of reference. I was trying to figure out what it was like – is there anything in America that is similar in the culture, respectively.
My friend started to describe its place amongst Korean people – she said that it wasn’t anything younger folks would generally go for. It was something that older people would eat for an early dinner and maybe some college student would like it, but it wasn’t the normal. In fact, many people were staring at the fact that two 20 somethings were chowing down on san-nakji. That’s when it hit me: live octopus occupies the same cultural space as meatloaf in America. It is the Korean meatloaf.