South Korea's live octopus fetish

South Korea's live octopus fetish

Squirming tentacles wrapping around on your tongue make this surprisingly mild Korean favorite an unforgettable culinary experience
korean live squid
Wooden chopsticks are key to gripping the slimy tentacles.

How do you eat a live octopus? Watch and learn.

 

It's the tentacles that get them -- literally, figuratively.

The slithering, searching, suction-cupped strands that lure fearless mouths to live octopus -- almost always alongside soju (rice wine) -- are also the features that make eating the dish a unique experience.

For first timers as well as veterans, the sensation of a live animal wrapping around the face and tongue as it struggles for its life can be both compelling and grotesque. It's a huge part of the attraction of downing live octopus.

As for the taste, the octopus itself is surprisingly mild  -- dunked in a mixture of sesame oil and salt sauce, it bursts with robust flavor.

Surging popularity

Live octopus, or san-nakji, has long been a popular side dish for Koreans, especially when drinking. Only in recent years, however, has the squirmy delicacy shot to fame among foreigners.

Its legendary status is largely due to the notorious scene in the 2003 Korean shock film “Oldboy," in which actor Choi Min-Sik stuffs a whole octopus into his mouth and chews grimly as he plots revenge.

Famed live octopus restaurant

One of the most popular Seoul restaurants for live octopus is Gasiri. With eight official branches, Gasiri has also inspired numerous copycats that bear the same name.

“San-nakji is a great source of iron,” says Gasiri owner Eun-hee Sohn. “It has an antioxidant effect on your liver.”

Although san-nakji are often locally referred to as being of the squid variety, with eight legs, they are actually of the octopus family, and are mid-sized, long-armed octopus, to be precise. 

The 43-year-old Sohn, who opened the first Gasiri restaurant 10 years ago, dispels the notion that live octopus is sought out only by "ajusshis" (older Korean men) partying after work.

“We have wedding after-parties here, and bachelor parties, too,” says Sohn. “San-nakji is also popular for large family dinners.”

“It is a good side dish to alcohol because it is non-greasy and has a unique, fresh taste,” says Jin-Hyung Chu, 53, a Gasiri regular. He says he also appreciates the unusual texture.

“You should eat it with raw garlic and doenjang,” says Sohn, adding that the tentacles dislike the smell of garlic, and thus “chase” them from sticking to the throat.

Gasiri, 210-3 Nonhyun-dong, Gangnam-gu (강남구 논현동 210-3); +82 2 3443 2614

Frances Cha is a Digital Producer at CNN Travel. 

 

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