I’ve blogged before about the popularity of fresh seafood in Korea – but I hadn’t, until tonight, experienced the dish that is by far the freshest of them all: 산낙지 (sannakji).
I went for dinner with three women who are mothers of children I teach. It was another one of those surreal experiences in that they don’t speak any English, but that’s not the topic of this post. They had asked me, when arranging dinner, if there were any foods I didn’t particularly enjoy. I said I like pretty much everything except seafood. In an interesting twist, they responded by taking me to a seafood restaurant – turns out that they wanted to convert me to the national favourite cuisine, rather than help me to avoid it!
Actually, I ate quite a lot and was stuffed by the time new dishes stopped appearing on the table. Honestly, it still makes my mind boggle to see how much these slim and slender women eat in one sitting! Plates of sushi and random whole fried fish, followed by a huge platter of raw fish, followed by soups and stews with rice followed by any number of small dishes containing various fish parts and shellfish, followed by deep-fried shrimp (delicious!) and all accompanied by numerous plates of salads and kimchi. The food just kept coming.
And then, all of a sudden, there it was. The infamous Korean dish I’d read about but so far avoided seeing in the flesh. If you’re squeamish and prefer your food to be dead, now would be the appropriate time to stop reading.
Sannakji consists of the tentacles of a freshly killed octopus. It is fished out of the tank, killed by one swift blow to the head, and then its tentacles are cut off, chopped into small pieces, and immediately whisked off to your table. Why is it so infamous?
Because the tentacles are still wriggling around when you eat them.
They look absolutely revolting. Slimy grey gloopy things squirming around on a lettuce leaf in the manner of slugs. When you try to pick up a piece, they all sort of cling to each other, and often refuse to let go of the chopsticks when you put them in your mouth. Newbies are advised to chew them thoroughly to prevent choking, as the suckers on the tentacles will attempt to stick to your throat otherwise. But experienced sannakji fans apparently like the feel of the wriggling as they swallow the pieces, so they don’t chew much. May I just sum up: ewwwwww!!!!
Unfortunately, I had vowed to myself that if I should ever happen to be offered some sannakji, I would make myself try it. With a sinking heart and a churning stomach, I realised that the time had come. One of the mothers dug in most enthusiastically, telling me that it was her favourite food and absolutely delicious. Chin-cha?! I asked incredulously, watching with undisguised horror as she put one mouthful after another of this wriggling grey gloop into her mouth and chewed with great gusto. You must try some, she urged, looking genuinely surprised at my pale face and wide eyes.
I will not go into the embarrassing details of how many times my chopsticks tentatively approached and hovered over the plate only to be drawn swiftly back as soon as a tentacle wiggled at me. Everyone was most amused. But you know what? I did it. Go, me!
Believe it or not, that picture was not posed at all. I was actually squealing, a panicky, what-am-I-doing, high-pitched, girly squeal, as I brought the wiggly morsel to my mouth. How embarrassing. But the weird thing is, I actually kinda liked it. Not the wriggling, that was just plain weird. The taste and texture, however – mildly enjoyable!
Seriously, though, sometimes you’d just kill for a sausage roll, y’know?!