My best friend and I were on a cultural roll the day we ate sannakji for the first time. He had come in from Glasgow to visit me in Seoul, and we’d hit every major tourist spot, hiked the most arduous city mountains and screeched it out in a handful of norebangs (karaoke rooms).
Along the way, someone had told us about a little outdoor spot in Hyehwa, a vibrant young party district northeast of the city, where they sold live octopus to drunk red-faced old men.
When In Seoul, right?!
The Koreans are well known for their love of brash, confrontational cuisine. Kimchi, the fermented cornerstone of the Korean diet, is anything but meek or understated. Beondegi, boiled silkworm served on street corners and eaten out of a cup with a toothpick, is unthinkable to many Western palates.
But few dishes could be considered quite so egregious to western diets than sannakji, or live octopus. A small baby octopus is chopped up in front of you, scooped onto a plate and served still squirming.
Sannakji was made famous in the West by a pretty grotesque scene from the movie Old Boy where a man held captive for fifteen years escapes only to consume a whole live octopus. The poor actor had to film that scene twice.
And Now We’re Committed.
Our experience was nowhere near as dramatic as that, but it didn’t stop it from being extremely uncomfortable. As we waited for our plate of cruelty to arrive we made awkward small talk with a table of old men next to us as we necked shots of soju.
I’d had my breath taken away numerous times at dinner tables in South Korea, but I won’t forget the immensely sadistic feeling of seeing a plate of writhing, squirming bits of tentacle trying to crawl away from my chopsticks.
The Important Question – How Did It Taste?
From a gourmand’s perspective, live octopus is barely any different from dead, raw octopus. It’s typically drizzled with sesame oil and sesame seeds, and then dipped in gochujang, a moderately spicy red pepper paste, to ‘stun’ it, but that doesn’t restrain it. :::
Gochujang, a tasty but ineffective animal tranquilizer. Photo: Katte Belletje / Flickr
The nerves are kicking, and the suction cups are still very much working, attaching themselves to the end of your chopsticks and then to your lips. It’s as if they know exactly what’s going on, and desperately want to escape.
This Dish Can Kill You.
More than a handful of people in South Korea are said to die each year from eating sannakji, typically due to asphyxiation from swallowing a still sucking tentacle without adequately chewing. And the chances of this happening are double when the diner is shit-faced on soju, which they often are.
We only finished half of our plate of wriggling grey matter before we couldn’t handle anymore. The novelty wore off the moment we felt something still moving in our mouths.
I was in Korea for another three years after that and never ate live octopus again.