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.


About Jonathan Rice

Fulbright Fellow, Pitzer College alum, and communicator passionate about telling stories that make an impact.

Posted on 10/17/2013, in Fulbright South Korea 2013-14, General and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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