Ensuring that dinner is a moving experienceThere it sits on the table before me: A platter of freshly severed tentacles. But unlike dishes in more conventional establishments, these tentacles haven’t yet given up the ghost. Here is life, motion. As I ready chopsticks for action, the entire mass slowly twists, squirms and writhes.
Koreans are renowned globally for adventurous dining. After all, these are a people who will cheerfully dine on dog, snack on silkworm larvae ― even savor a snake. But at least the foregoing have the virtue of being dead when consumed.
That isn’t the case with the famous/notorious coastal dish san nakchi, or living octopus, the specialty of the Nonhyeon-dong eatery Gaebeol Nakji (The Muddy Octopus) ― so named because its raw materials are sourced from muddy estuaries near Mokpo, a premier location for this delicacy.
The restaurant is a shop-front style place. It’s small, with only eight tables, all on the floor. However, it’s bright, modern and spotlessly clean, with a friendly and cheerful ajuma serving staff.
The san nakchi is 15,000 won a plate. Super fresh ― it could hardly be any fresher ― the drill is to dip it in either sesame oil or red-pepper paste and pop it in your mouth. The trick is to actually pick the things up. With the slippery tentacles of the freshly slaughtered cephalopod still moving, this is quite a challenge even for black-belt chopstick masters. Most simply use their fingers.
When it’s in your mouth, beware. The tentacles will attempt to stick themselves to the roof of your trap, making for a very interesting dining experience indeed; after all, how often does one eat a meal that resists being made a meal of?
(Believers in Karmic Law will be pleased to hear that there are frequent reports of diners choking to death on recalcitrant tentacles.)
There’s actually little taste, the main thing is texture ― hence the sauces. The stuff is slippery on the outside, with a contrast in texture between the suckers, the skin and the chewy meat.
So far so good. After all, these tentacles are moving, but they’re not sentient; their motion is caused by chemical reactions.
Not so the next dish, bak sok mil guk (15,000 won). This is a boiling bowl of vegetable stock ― to which is added two live octopus. The unfortunate beasts don’t take too long to expire ― but is adding a living animal to boiling water going a bit too far?
“We think it perfectly normal to eat this,” says Cho, Pyong-ju, a member of the gourmet circle Miinchon, literally “Community of Good Tastes.” “But, we are gourmets,” he concedes. “Some people are squeamish about this.”
Adds another member, Sok Chang-in, “In Japan, a skillful sashimi chef will serve you fish that is still living. However, when I eat that, I always cover the head with a piece of lettuce: I don’t like the eye blinking at me!”
The moral insouciance of these diners is understandable in one respect: While the Brigitte Bardots of this world raise the roof about dog consumption, has any Western NGO ever raised its voice on behalf of live-cooked gastropods?
Back to the table. I regret to report that despite the ingredients, the stock ― could one call this “livestock?” ― is, at best, mildly flavored.
Only later does the ajuma arrive to split the octopus heads open, releasing their flavorful ink into the mix, then adding some sujaebi (lumps of savory rice cake, similar to pasta).
Side dishes are routine ― kimchi, bean sprouts, et cetera ― but include one particularly interesting one: chopped green pepper marinated in anchovy sauce. This is sensationally hot and salty, and makes up for the somewhat bland taste of the main course.
To drink, there are the usual suspects. Soju is a recommended accompaniment, as useful to quiet the nerves as to accompany the food.
Verdict: Moral philosophers should steer clear. But for diners who enjoy a challenge, this is less a meal and more an experience.
by Andrew Salmon