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I picked up the wriggling octopus tentacle with two metal chopsticks, eyeing the snack warily as it tried to slink away. It didn’t really look like anything I should be eating – it looked more like an extra from one of the Pirate of the Caribbean films. The phrase “playing with your food” popped into my head as I tried clumsily to keep in from squirming its way into my lap. I was about to eat incredibly fresh octopus tentacle. And it, apparently, had different plans.
Some of my friends like to bring up my bizarre eating habits. Bizarre not in the strange types of food I eat, but the normal foods that I managed to avoid for the first half of my life. My first real hamburger was junior year of high school. My first strawberry was my freshman year of college. The first tomato I ate was while I was studying abroad in Austria. I simply avoided things I didn’t think I would like. (My mother would probably like me to add that she provided all of these things on our kitchen table, I just refused to touch them). When I finally tried them, it turns out I was wrong on many counts (I stick with my opinion that tomatoes are kinda gross).
Traveling changed my outlook on food. Things smell and look and are eaten differently in various countries, and who was I to assume that the home-style American food I had grown up with (or actively avoided) was the best the world had to offer? When my friends and I traveled, we asked for what and where the locals ate, and it was always amazing: delish German wienerschintzel, Polish goulash, Croatian cevapcici, Spanish tapas, and Portuguese bacalhau.
Now that I’m living in Korea, my school provides my lunch every day so I am treated to wonderful new (and spicy) dishes that aren’t served on your local Asian restaurant’s menu back home. Some restaurants here have grills built into the table so you can cook your own Korean barbeque, boil your own Shabu Shabu, or stir your own fish head soup.
On Sunday, I ended up staring down my octopus tentacle because of some rain cancelling previous plans. I was supposed to go hiking on Sunday but due to the inclement weather, we resorted to Plan B: meeting in Noryangjin at a fish market, where you wander through the aisles, looking at tanks of very much alive crab, fish, octopus, and other unidentifiable creatures, choose whatever appears tasty, and have it prepared in the restaurant below. The market was established in 1927 and was extensive – we saw only a fraction!
My friend Megan (same name, same correct spelling of Megan!) and I picked out a few octopi that appeared particularly feisty and a large brown fish that … I don’t know, seemed fishy? The man running the stand scooped the fish out with his net and the procured a sharp hook from out of thin air. I sensed what was about to happen and looked away quickly, only to hear a sickening crack. Sashimi is prepared by killing the fish with a quick stab to the skull – something about keeping it fresh. A girl could use a bit of warning though.
Then another man gutted the fish (right there! On a table!) and gave us a plate full of freshly cleaned fish to take downstairs. Still a bit stunned, I followed down below, to a restaurant full of people sitting at low tables, chatting over crab, shrimp, octopus, fish, and toasting happily with soju. We ordered makkoli, my go-to drink of the moment, and waited for our dishes to be brought out.
The fish was brought out with kimchi (of course), different spicy pastes (which I tried and then promptly choked on), garlic, lettuce, and soy sauce. We could eat the fish slices raw or prepare little lettuce wraps. As an Oklahoman who doesn’t exactly have access to fresh seafood, the fish was amazing. They also put bits of the fish in a boiling soup that tasted good, but had quite a bit more bone than expected and I spent most of my time digging for edible pieces.
Next came the plate of wriggling octopi. We had gotten two, so there were many chopped tentacles and two octopi bodies flailing. A few pieces decided to make a run for it and we had to fend them off with our chopsticks, laughing at the absurdity of our meal. Two Korean men laughed and watched as I ineptly picked up a piece and – gulp – decided to just GO FOR IT.
Fortunately Other Megan is totally understanding that I must document everything, so she helpfully videoed my first experience with my octopus tentacle. I think I handled it really well, if you can look past the blushing and the embarrassed looks.
It was chewy, and tried to save itself by clinging onto the inside of my cheek, but it was SO GOOD. The next few pieces I tried with various oil and soy sauce combinations, and it was a chewy, delicious adventure.
Tip: chew QUICKLY. You don’t want that tentacle latching on to your check or the inside of your throat. If you chew fast enough, you’re fine!
The Korean men next to us had ordered too much shrimp and offered us some. We struck up a conversation, and later after we had finished dinner, we all went to a nearby coffee shop and they bought us some coffee. We sat and chatted for a while. One was an accountant who spoke English fairly well, and the other was an actor who struggled to communicate, but they were both incredibly nice guys. They thought we were brave to be eating the squirmy octopus. I thought we were rather brave as well, considered a few years ago I had been scared off by a little strawberry.