Memories of a spicy showdown in octopus alley

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Memories of a spicy showdown in octopus alley

As a young journalist, there was one thing I could never figure out about my senior colleagues. It was their compulsive notions about being a brave journalist, which often translated into militant attitudes that made them act as though they were ready to conquer the world. Often these ideas influenced the way they dressed, talked or even ate in public, patterns of behavior that young reporters were forced to emulate.
Part of that way of life was eating nakji boggeum, or spicy octopus, in the summertime at a restaurant close to our newsroom. This is a dish so notoriously hot that even Koreans raised on pungent kimchi find themselves paying for it the morning after finishing a plateful.
Eating it was one of the traditions developed by the old boys’ club, a masochistic process that was described to us as some kind of romantic journey that only journalists had the privilege of experiencing.
I must confess, it was fun the first few times. For lunch, a bunch of us would hit the small neighborhood simply called “nakji golmok,” or octopus alley, where restaurant after restaurant was equipped with an old fish tank with octopi clinging to the glass. It was early August, and I realized for the first time that eating spicy octopus in Mugyo-dong could actually kill a person by way of excessive sweating. There was one small fan to cool 15 to 20 people. Most restaurants in the area were small, and full of heat coming from the kitchen.
We would always start with the same menu: A bottle of soju and plates of octopus, which had been reluctantly taken from the fish tank and fried in a pan with vegetables and an abundance of red pepper powder. I guess the idea was to swallow as much octopus as one possibly could without having to dip one’s spoon into the clam soup that came as a side dish.
It was truly a battle of tongue versus octopus. Once in a while there would be pickled radishes, or extra plates of vegetables, but often there were no side dishes on the table except the clam soup and a glass of cold water. By the time rice arrived, it was hard to figure out whether you were chewing octopus or your own tongue.
Looking back, this was a testosterone match, based on some childish notions of masculinity that stressed competition for the sake of competing. This became clearer to me when I saw Park Chan-ho, during his days as a Los Angeles Dodger, proudly boasting in an interview after his team beat the Phillies that his mother had made him spicy octopus the night before the game.
Octopus may be a worthwhile challenge to some, but speaking as a midcareer journalist who’s just been diagnosed with stomach problems, clam soup will do.

How to Cook

Nakji boggeum

Ingredients: 1 octopus; 2 green onions, 3 mushrooms, 1 onion, 1 red pepper, 1 green pepper. For sauce: 1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, chili powder and crushed ginger; 1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil; 2 teaspoons of chili paste; crushed 2 garlic cloves. Serves 2 or 3.
1. Remove the octopus’s intestines and ink sac, sprinkle with salt and gently wash with water. Boil for 2 minutes, and cut the meat into 5-centimeter pieces.
2. Seed the red and green peppers, and cut them into bite-sized pieces along with the onions and mushrooms.
3. Pour the sauce over a pan coated with olive oil. Gently stir over medium heat.
4. When the sauce thickens, add the vegetables and the octopus. Stir over a high flame for 5 to 10 minutes.
5. Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.

by Park Soo-mee
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