Monthly Archives: October 2013

Eating Sannakji (AKA Live Octopus)

I had been waiting for this day since before I came to Korea. Of all of the apprehensions I had about moving to Korea for a year and undertaking a Fulbright, my favorite piece of cultural strange was hearing descriptions of people encountering and eating sannakji. What is Sannakji, you might ask?

You see, along with delicious fermented delicacies like kimchi and flavorful grilled meats like ssamgyapsal and bulgogi, Korean cuisine holds a special place for fresh items; in some cases, extremely fresh.

Sannakji is “live” octopus.

I put “live” in quotes because, of course, it’s not technically fully alive when you eat it. At least in the way that I experienced the dish, it is not as if they hand you a live octopus and say dig in. However, the experience isn’t far off.

Before arriving in Korea, and during my orientation to the Fulbright program, I heard many stories about people eating live octopus.  Most of my fellow ETAs put quite a bit of anticipation into the experience. Going off these murmurings, I too eagerly (and somewhat squeamishly) awaited my encounter with the dish. For many foreigners, eating sannakji almost equals a sort of food event, a planned out experience along the lines of a “Man vs. Food” challenge.

For me, the meal was unexpected.

It was Hangul Day, a national holiday in the middle of the school week. After a few rousing games of badminton with my host family that afternoon, we were walking back to the apartment when my host father notice a food truck pulled over across from the rice cake store.

“Sannakji!” he exclaimed.

At this point, I wasn’t aware of what sannakji meant. Then, before I knew it, the man in the back of the truck was pulling small live octopus out of some water baskets.

“Octopus,” I thought to myself. “Delicious. I wonder how my host mom will cook it.”

Then, as I looked on in shock, the man from the truck quickly took a knife to the octopus and chopped it into small pieces. As soon as I saw the wiggling pieces put into a Styrofoam container and covered with sesame oil, I knew what I was in for. In this unceremonious manner, I was going to come to terms with eating live octopus.

When we got back to our apartment, my host brother rapidly set the table and opened the box up. The pieces of octopus were still moving and he eagerly grabbed some with his chopsticks. Frankly, I am surprised how calm I was at this point—freaking out just seemed like an inappropriate action to take in front of my host family. I took my chopsticks and picked a piece that was only moving slightly. A quick dip in some gochujang pepper sauce and into my mouth it went.

The verdict? It was actually delicious.

If you’re someone who likes octopus, you know that it can become quite rubbery, tough, and chewy when cooked. Raw octopus has the same delicious taste, but avoids the pitfalls that cooking can cause. It’s still a little unnerving that the octopus is moving when you eat it, but the taste somewhat makes up for it. The weirdest part is that when you try the pieces of octopus out of the box, they use their suction cups to stick to it. Unnerving. The dish was so delicious that my host father sent my host brother and I to buy another serving, which we did without objection.

As surprisingly pleasant (maybe I have been in Korea too long) as I found eating sannakji, I realize that there are some ethical implications (I did read, and enjoy, “Eating Animals,” after all). Is eating live octopus somewhat cruel? Arguably, yes, although I wonder just how cruel it is when compared to any other seafood like boiling crabs or eel. There is something strangely calming about knowing exactly where your food is coming from. Regardless of these dilemmas, my experience with live octopus was a positive one and, shockingly, something that I would do again.


Busan: A cosmopolitan interlude


A cloudy day in Busan

After feeling a little cooped up in Ochang since I’ve arrived, last weekend I had the opportunity to go to Busan, my first trip since arriving at my home stay. Busan is a coastal city in the south of South Korea, famous for its main Haeundae beach and, the reason I was there, the Busan International Film Festival or BIFF.

This was not only my first real travel outside of the sleepy but comfortable suburb of Ochang—it was also my first time experiencing Korean rail travel. Back on the East Coast of the USA, I’m a big fan of trains. It has many conveniences and significantly less hassle when compared to air travel. I opted to take the KTX to Busan, Korea’s high-speed train system. Osong, the station nearest to me, emerges out of the countryside like a cathedral to mass transportation. While farmland surrounds the station, the structure itself looks like it would fit better in Seoul or a major city. Notwithstanding the strange architecture choices for a countryside train station, it was easy to procure my tickets and find my track, considering that the cavernous structure had only about 50 people inside.

Around 2 hours later, I found myself in Busan. Another 45 minutes on the convenient and inexpensive metro system and I was in Haeundae to find my hostel. I met up with around 9 other ETAs for the trip to discover the city, decompress from our first weeks of teaching, and take in the film festival. It was great seeing everyone and hearing about how different our experiences have been. During Orientation, our two mantras were “It Depends” and “Don’t Compare,” and they have held up well for this part of the grant year. After not going out or seeing many foreigners for the past month, a decidedly late night ensued, complete with soju, a very questionable Mexican restaurant named the “Fuzzy Navel,” fried chicken, a club called Tao (not like Vegas), 3 am kimchi-jeon, and, thankfully, an expensive-but-worth-it American IPA (Lost Coast Brewery Indica IPA). All the trappings of an excellent night out.

The main attraction in Busan and the reason that the city was inundated with Fulbright ETAs and other foreigners over the weekend was the Busan International Film Festival. BIFF is perhaps a shining feature of Korea reaching out to become a global destination. It’s easy to forget that up until the 1980s Korea still had Peace Corps volunteers doing development work and that the country was nowhere near the economic and industrial powerhouse it is today. Obvious signs of Korea’s move onto the world stage come from it’s massive conglomerate corporations; Hyundai, Kia, and Samsung—now widely-established global brands. While Korea has been busy exporting itself to the world, the nation also seeks to bring the world to it. BIFF is a truly international event. The festival transforms the main Haeundae beach into a marketplace and HQ. Corporate sponsors such as VitaminWater and Samsung sling their latest products at massive booths, small stages host sessions with film notables, and there was even a rather strange luxury smoking lounge set up by a Korean cigarette company.

My main brush with the festival was having the opportunity to see the international premiere of the film “Transit,” a Filipino film by new director Hannah Espia. “Transit” is a drama about Filipino migrants in Israel, working to stay hidden from the immigration authorities and dealing with the cultural clash for the children who are born Filipino but raised Israeli. It was a touching film with some beautiful performances by the child actors and has been nominated as the Philippines entry as Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards. Perhaps most special was the Q and A with the director afterwards, during which I was able to ask her a question about the children in the film.


Only a small portion of the massive building.

We saw the film in the Busan Cinema Center, the exclusive venue for the festival and a modern temple to movies. It gave the DC area’s AFI Silver Theatre Center a run for its money.

Next door to the Cinema Center is another landmark of Busan: Shinsegae. It’s the world’s largest department store: think floors and floors of endless brand-name items and one massive food court. It even has its own subway station.

When I took the KTX back to sleepy Ochang after my time in Busan, I felt as if I needed another weekend away. It was a somewhat rejuvenating and reassuring experience—it was wonderful connecting with other ETAs, sharing our stories, exploring somewhere new, and realizing that I am indeed having the right experience for me in Korea, even as it is so different from that of others. Finally, I got out of the city right before a typhoon was going to hit. Winning.

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