On a recent trip to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, Stephen E. Vick goes fully local with a meal that was literally crawling off his plate.
In early November, I travelled to Seoul, South Korea for two quick nights (and three long days!), where I was a judge for the World AeroPress Championship, cheered on Kenya’s World Barista Championship competitor Martin Shabaya, and took care of some work business at Café Show Seoul, a massive coffee trade show. While I knew my free time would be limited, I visited Seoul a couple of years back (also for a short work trip) and one thing stuck out in my mind from that trip: the food.
On this particular night, I wasn’t planning on going on any kind of major culinary adventure, I was only heading to a chimaek, which is a portmanteau of “chicken” and “maekju,” the Korean word for beer; literally chicken (fried and/or spicy) and beer served together as an after-work snack. The chimaek started popping up on menus in South Korea in the 1970’s, when draft beer was introduced. In the past few years, a younger generation has revitalized chimaek culture, making it popular once again. On my way to this chimaek (hosted by a couple of coffee traders), I was freezing cold in Seoul’s 4° C late autumn evening weather (no jacket coming from Kenya), and trekked from where I was staying in Gangnam, to the small café hosting the party in the Jongno district, about 45 minutes in a taxi. Due to some confusion with the driver, I got out of the taxi about five minutes away from the café and used my phone to navigate to my destination.
I noticed some alleys on the map that led directly to where I was headed and they were lined with bustling restaurants as far as the eye could see, so I thought it would be fun to venture through them on my way to the party. Most of these restaurants were little holes in the wall, with around 10-20 tables maximum. Also, most of them had their own aquariums out front full of crabs, octopus, squid, scallops, oysters … you name it. When I saw the long arm octopus swimming around, I immediately remembered YouTube videos I’ve seen of people eating San-nakji, which are raw, freshly butchered long arm octopus tentacles (which are still quite wiggly and often even dance their way off the plate), served with sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Some people go so far as to eat the entire live octopus, head and everything, neatly wrapped around a pair of chopsticks! I’ve always been a fairly adventurous eater, and this is something I’ve wanted to try for some time (the tentacles … not the whole thing, necessarily).
After warming up with a couple pieces of delicious chicken (both of the fried and baked-spicy varieties) and washing that down with some beer, I chatted up one of the hosts and told her about my walking adventure and she said that I didn’t stumble onto some ordinary alley … that particular street is actually known for its San-nakji! When I heard this, I knew I had to go and my host offered to take me, so I convinced a few people from the chimaek to tagalong and eat raw octopus with me (or just watch me make the attempt).
Six of us gathered around a couple of round tables and my host just started ordering things … what followed was a seafood feast. I can’t recall everything that came out, but for sure we had raw oysters, scallops, prawns, various sashimi-cut white fish, a seafood-based ramen noodlestyle soup, and plenty of kimchee (fermented cabbage). One of the starters was quite interesting and of note: Beondegi, which are steamed silkworm pupae. After snacking on that feast, the main attraction, Sannakji, was placed in the middle of the table: a plate of pulsating, freshly chopped tentacles from the long arm octopus I saw swimming out in the aquarium just a few minutes before, served with a side of sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds. Now, as excited as I had been to try this, creepy, crawly things make me squeamish, and I certainly wasn’t diving straight in, especially as I saw one little tentacle crawling its way off the plate. After a few attempts at grabbing some tentacles (the suction cups stick immediately to your fingers), and a few squeamish squeals in hesitation (to the entertainment of everyone in the restaurant), I finally managed to get a hold of a tentacle, dip it in some sesame oil and seeds, and get it my mouth to start chewing as it tried to hang on to the edge of my lip. Once the anxiety and anticipation of the first tentacle was over, I managed to enjoy a few more, along with plenty of delicious soju. While I was offered the experience of eating the entire live octopus, I was quite full, and I really don’t think I would have done it. After a few final bites, I ventured back to my hotel in the crisp, cool fall weather, reflecting happily on an experience that I would NEVER try at home, but would happily partake in the next time I visit Seoul.