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.