The 산낙지 Episode

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After returning from my Jeju Island trip, the fact that THIS IS MY LAST MONTH IN SOUTH KOREA hit me hard. I started to think about what else I felt like I needed to do in Korea since I don’t know when I’ll be back. (Though I added the 해녀/haenyeo thing to my bucket list and now it’s destiny. I’ll see you again, Land of the Morning Calm.)

One of those ideas was to eat sannakji (산낙지), infamously known as “live octopus” but isn’t actually. You aren’t served the head, just the raw arms which like to wriggle around even after they’ve been severed from the brain. Anyway, I rather think of myself as an adventurous girl or at least one who would like to develop that quality in herself and this sounded like just the thing.

I did a bit of research and discovered that sannakji cost about 30,000KRW/USD$30. That was way too much money and too much octopus for one person. That meant, in the words of Landmark, that I had to bring team to eating raw octopus. I had to find other people to come with me.

I floated it to a few friends. Most of them said no, until I caught up with Jessica and Anna at Monday language exchange. We hatched a plan to go that Friday and to do some bowling after as our prize for a job well done.

I got a tip from a friend that I could find sannakji down by the local beach. It was in a Harry Potter-esque tent that looked tiny and forlorn on the outside but big, spacious and warm on the inside.

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(If you can read Korean, sannakji is the first item they’re advertising on their menu.)

The ladies took our orders and came out with the traditional Korean side dishes fairly fast. I prepped for the sannakji by eating silkworm larvae. (It tastes like what you would think a bug would taste like. Crunchy and lacking anything else.)

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(Silkworm larvae in the front. The dish behind it are these shells you’re supposed to suck the juices out of. It just mostly tastes like seawater.)

They took their time with the sannakji though. It was like sitting in an abortion clinic, wondering if you were going to talk yourself out of it. I made a mistake of telling my friends that people have died from eating sannakji; it was meant to keep us away from the soju since those accidents tended to happen to inebriated people, but made my friends more nervous instead.

The ladies brought out oysters. I figured I would keep prepping for the sannakji by eating oysters too. There’s such a culture of eating raw seafood in Korea; they are surrounded on all three sides by water after all and it is abundant. The haenyeo in Jeju make their living from it. I was conscious of the fact that what would probably be considered expensive seafood back in the US had a way of casually showing up in my crappy school lunches. Like, hey, this is what we picked up from our backyard this morning, eat. These oysters felt like that. Like expensive delicacies I should probably partake of because it was set before me. And I was about to eat raw octopus, I might as well get the full raw seafood experience.

Here’s the thing to remember though: I hate raw seafood. Even cooked seafood is a hard sell for me, especially if I can get a different cooked animal instead. I remember once watching a date slurp those babies down while I could barely eat anything. I do not understand how anyone could like them.

I thought eating the one oyster was going to make me throw up. It tasted way too much of seawater, but without being able to drink it all down easily. There was the slimy, gummy section after all. Lucky for me, I didn’t have anything in my stomach to throw up.

The oysters almost psyched me out when the sannakji finally arrived.

They didn’t wriggle as much as I thought and the pile in the middle seemed to be resting under their collective weight. But with a bit of a poke, they could be compelled to dance.

One by one, we tried out the octopus. The restaurant had seasoned them with chili powder and some other stuff which I thought was a nice touch. It tasted mainly like cooked octopus. Chewy and fat. The main difference was that this was raw and therefore slimy. A bit like the oyster but in more bite-sized pieces. Also, they moved.

We were rather tentative at the beginning, but got into the swing of things. One friend seemed to take ages to try her first piece but was downing them like spaghetti noodles by the end of the night. Well, sort of. They never stopped being hard to swallow. It felt like they were sucking on the back of your teeth, but if you chewed them thoroughly, that didn’t happen. They just got stuck in your teeth instead.

It took a lot of energy to eat those arms and we ended up leaving quite a lot on the table. I tried to ask them to cook the rest, but it got lost in translation. I think she was telling us that it was meant to be eaten raw and that it was a delicacy (which we knew). That made me feel a bit like a boor.

We celebrated by bowling and I got a turkey (three strikes in a row) for the first time in awhile (or possibly ever). We also stopped by McDonald’s to get a “real, normal” dinner.

I had an excellent night hanging out with two amazing ladies. Thank you Jessica and Anna for accompanying me on this excellent adventure!

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