Unearthed from the archives is a story of my first time eating sannakji, the Korean delicacy of eating raw octopus.
Once upon a time, I ate ‘sannakji.’ What pray tell is this strange word? Why, sannakji 낙지 simply translates to ‘live octopus.’ It’s the ultimate dare food while in Korea… well that and maybe eating dog… but let’s not go there. It was definitely not a pre-meditated event but the spontaneity to check this one off the list on a random week night with a random gang of friends made it all the more special. The night started off with a casual round of drinks to welcome back a friend of mine to Daejeon. This friend happened to be an old colleague of mine who I had spent a summer with at John Hopkin’s. It’s cases like these that reminds me how strange the universe is… he had lived in South Korea for a few years prior to my arrival but I never knew he was a fellow Daejeon-nite. Such a weird coincidence! Anyways, after getting a nice buzz on at my favorite bar and talking about things to do in Korea, I suggested (more enthusiastically than necessary) that we should go get sannakji! Mind you, it was like 1 in the morning. On a Wednesday night. But there was another gourmand present in my midst who was completely up for it so we found ourselves at a little restaurant around the corner of the bar that someone had randomly said was a place to eat ‘nakji.
I really had no idea what to expect as we embarked on this bizzaro eat. In Korean cuisine, raw dishes are considered a delicacy. I immediately became alarmed when after inquiring about the dish, the owner of the restaurant ushered out his very obedient wife from behind the register to the storefront where huge florescent blue aquariums with all sorts of sea creatures were being displayed. Yea, I got it. FRESH, FRESH EVERYTHING. She pointed to this ugly little beast all curled up at the bottom of the tank and grinned in a way that truly made me nervous. Before I knew it, she had a fish net in her hand and snatched the baby octopus with the prowess of a woman who has entertained one too many curious foreigners in her lifetime. I followed her into the kitchen to watch her work her magic. The octopus kept balling up so she had to forcibly stretching it out. But I realized that I couldn’t bear to watch its execution so I sat myself back down with my friends sipping nervously away at bottles of Korean beer. Here I was in a pretty white lace dress sitting opposite from a man who I had just met two hours ago about to feast on raw octopus.
The once living being I had seen being wrangled out of the water was now writhing in small tiny pieces on a square white plate.
It was lathered in sesame oil accentuating how very-much-in-motion my midnight snack was in the light. With the metal chopsticks that are quintessential to Korean dining, I tried to grab a piece but I seriously couldn’t grab one. It kept escaping!!! The owner could see me struggling and replaced my metal chopsticks for wooden ones. After successfully snatching a piece, I immediately popped it in my mouth for fear of losing it. I kept hearing my friend Kevin telling me to chew and I’m glad I did because the suction cups were still active and I could feel them attach to the inner walls of my mouth. That was definitely the most alarming bit of the experience! But the taste was lovely. It was fresh and bright and dipping the pieces in a ginger-soy sauce concoction made it all the more pleasurable. My friend Julie who was also with us kept squealing in disgust at how animated the octopus was even minutes after being chopped up MasterChef style. Being forewarned by the threat of choking, I kind of laughed at myself for being a bit intoxicated, clearly seeing as a halt in chewing could have meant sudden death. Dramatics aside, it was a surprisingly one of the most entertaining food experiences and definitely worth the hype. [circa October 2014]
👉 Has anyone else tried sannakji? Tell me more about your culinary adventures in the comments below.
I am terrified of feeling moving things in my mouth! OMG We keep getting told we need to try this, but I just can’t summon the courage to eat any of Korea’s seafood! Haha, it seriously looks scary AF. You were so chill about trying it! I can’t believe one kept escaping! So crazy. I seriously would be scared of choking! haha!
Hahaha yea the one that kept escaping was pretty hilarious but then it felt like something out of a nightmare, it was about to fall off the table cause no one was paying attention to it!!! I love chewy things cause you can chew the shit out of them! Its a good mouth exercise 😛
Noemi of Pinay Flying High
Oh my goodness!!!! I eat so many weird things (being a Filipino) but I’m not sure I can handle this! But if you can, I do believe I can too. I just hope I won’t choke to death because that would be a very embarrassing way to die. Lol.
LOL I attribute my adventurous eating habits to the fact that I am Filipino! But then again, my mom was super maarte watching my brother and I down the plate so maybe it really is a mind over matter thing. I agree, it would be the worst way to go…
Poor Octopus! That is horrible. I hate the Japanese attitude to animal cruelty, especially whale harpooning. Would you behave like this towards a living creature in your own country? If the answer is No, then don’t do it abroad!
Well, I think the attitudes towards animals is so culturally-informed. This has been a time honored tradition for years in Korea and as a Filipino-American, treatment towards animals differs greatly than in the USA so technically, yes, this would happen in my country and I wouldn’t bat an eye to it. Its not like they made this dish for sport. Its a “hoe” dish, which is a raw dish, and to get the flavor profile, the animals needs to be fresh. The execution is quite swift, its not some long drawn out affair. Whale harpooning I think is a in a different ballpark since a) most whale species are endangered; b) the way they harpoon them is actually gruesome and whales suffer long and hard before expiring; and c) most of the meat is wasted. The reason why they use smaller octopus is so that it can actually be consumed. I finished my whole plate!
I had heard of this before and the fact that you can actually choke while eating it. This is one potentially lethal meal! I have to admit I did wonder reading it, if the octopus is actually killed quickly but sounds like from your previous comment that it is executed swiftly and I am guessing that the movement is just the tentacles twitching? Anyway definitely a crazy experience – probably not one that I would do but I am pretty sure my boyfriend did when he lived in Korea.
Yes its very lethal, one of the most dangerous things to eat if its not chewed properly but then I thought about how its kind of good because it teaches a lesson on not to rush. Yes they kill it very quickly and the movement is actually because the nervous still remains active even after its been severed.
The Toronto Seoulcialite
I’m not great with weird texture on the best of days, so this one is totally out for me! I’m glad you’re such an adventurous eater! It totally saves me the effort (and fear!). So far I haven’t tried anything really gross here. Have you tried bondaegi yet?
Yea the texture was something to get used to, plus the added sesame oil. It was very (slick) 😛 Omg I actually liked bondaegi hahaha of course. I really will eat anything!
Yum! I remember those little moving guys being tasty, especially when dipped in soy sauce. I’m a huge seafood fan, so when they told me I could eat raw octopus, I was all about it. Glad your lil brother enjoyed himself!
Cool cool! That’s awesome that you liked it and right? Soy sauce masks all problems. My brother was really cool about it! Can’t wait for him to visit Vietnam so we can try cobra together!
I’ve not even sanakji! I’ve actually not tried any Korean hoe… I really love sushi and sashimi but I dunno… those restaurants with the fish tanks outside freak me out lol. I would like to say that I will eat sanakji before I leave Korea, but I’m not sure if I will! You’re so brave! And actually the first person who I’ve actually heard comment on the flavour! Thanks for sharing, maybe you’ve inspired me to pluck up the courage for it……
You haven’t done any hoe dishes yet!?! Oh man you gotta check out Jeonju and order the hoe version of their bibimbap. It’s extremely pleasurable. I think you really would enjoy it!
I don’t eat seafood because I dislike the taste. I also don’t like that my food is still moving and trying to grab me while I’m eating, so this is out of the question for me. Sounds like a scene out of a horror movie! 🙂
I never realized how many people weren’t fond of seafood but its cool to see preferential diversity. You do have to beware of those tentacles, they really attack you 😛
Good for you for fully immersing into the traditions of Korea – particularly adventurous eating practices! I really wish I’d tried this while I lived there. I think I would need SO MUCH HOT SAUCE with it, but who knows. Certainly a crazy awesome experience and an funny anecdotal to tell to those who couldn’t fathom it. Was it harder to hold onto it with the metal chopsticks? It looked like that one was squirming in the video and I feel like I would drop it on my lap or something and then promptly squeal.
Thanks Laura for always giving me props! You never learn until you never try! And if there was a vegetarian offering of this, I know you’d be the first person on it. Are there any weird “veggie” eats? Actually come to think of it, I know in Sardinia they have this cheese that they wait until its maggot-ridden to serve. Well… I guess that’s still not veg is it 😛 Yea omg, I really felt inept using those metal chopsticks. I think halfway through the meal I requested wooden ones!
Lol! I loved Sannakji as well!!
Here are some other recommendations:
1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_pineapple (Korean Meonggye), probably the most bitter thing EVER haha
2. Korean Gejang https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gejang fresh raw crabs in sauce..yummy!
3. Korean sashimi at Noryangjin Market or Garak Market. Sooo good!
I hope you get to taste more interesting food! 😀
Yay! Someone else who likes sannakji! Go team! 🙂 I do not do bitter things but I love crab more than anything! Raw crab? how yummy! I Have had the sashimi at Noryangjin. It was delicious!
EEEKKK!! I just couldn’t do it…even though everyone kept telling us to try it while we were in Korea. I must say, I had a bit of a hard time as I don’t eat seafood, and as you know, seafood is EVERYWHERE in Korea! I eat fish, but that’s about the extent of sea I like in my food 😉
You’re so brave!
Hahaha so funny I’m kind of the opposite! I only eat fish… if its raw! Cooked fish is the only thing I cannot stomach but I will eat all things seafood. Some of the seafood there is quite strange… Megan and I were talking about how most of their offerings look like something out of a bad medical movie!
I love how vividly you described the situation. I felt like I was there with you as you embarked on this experience. I don’t know if I could deal with the entire head on the plate, but I don’t mind the legs so much. Also, everything tastes amazing with sesame sauce. Have you ever tried frying eggs in a bit of it? We used to cook them like that for breakfast. 😉
Awwww, thanks girl! I feel like I’m very wordy but I’m glad you appreciate it! They don’t put the head on the plate, just the tentacles. And I am obsessed with the taste of sesame sauce! Gotta get it with eggs! What a good idea!
YayyyyyY!!!! This is one food I could never be dared to eat. My husband had no choice but to do it and the sons screamed hahahah…. and then he vividly described how it felt like moving in his mouth down to his throat hahahaha.
Yes it really is one of the strangest sensations feeling something writhe around in your mouth! But its all good, I love my seafood!