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Korean Live Octopus [split from Outer Boroughs]

(Note: This post was split from the Outer Boroughs board at: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/47502... -- The Chowhound Team).

Well, I can definitely see how it would disgust or repel some people, but, really, it's a cultural thing. I had it in Korea - on a very chilly night in Seoul with some Soju (Korean vodka) - and loved it. Perhaps you already know this, but, the animal is, in fact, dead, the moving tentacles remnants of nerve endings that have yet to die. The octopus is killed very quickly, and probably suffers as much or less than a lobster being thrown into a vat of boiling water and definitely less so than a great many cooped-up chickens. Then again, we can't really know this for sure, can we?

Barbaric? Maybe so. But no more or less than eating other animals that have been killed for our dining pleasure.

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  1. Polecat thanks for explaining that! I, too, had it in Seoul, at Noryangin Fish Market, and I think the dish remains the oddest of any that I have ever eaten! Very unusual sensation as you feel it moving in your mouth and throat!

    19 Replies
    1. re: erica

      Definitely unusual. As can often be the case, the vodka helps. How did you like it?

      1. re: Polecat

        The first jolt came when they presented the platter heaped with the octopus and it was all sqiggling and wiggling on the plate. Honestly I could barely believe my eyes. But yes, I was instructed to down a healthy gulp of shoju (??) before and after!! The taste was fine but for me it was difficult to get past the sensation of eating something that was moving.. But the Noryangin fish market should be on every chowhound's gold list...some of the varieties of sea creatures they had on offer were truly odd-looking...I wish I could post a few pics. There were some pink things that looked exactly like male organs....exactly!! Those were right up there on the list of bizarre looking fodstuffs, let me tell you!!

        On the same trip, we also had horsemeat sashimi..that, too, took some mind games for me to get past the idea of raw horsemeat. But it was quite tasty..excellent, in fact. That was at a Japanese restaurant , also in Seoul..

        1. re: erica

          I believe i have eaten those pink things that you refer to... They are definitely an acquired taste... I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, but I can't say I'll eat those things again.

            1. re: hannaone

              Once again, thank you Hannaone!

              I spoke to my mother. I have not had Kaebul, the pink phallic things. I had Mung gae, another pink sea creature. Some kind of urchin. I am trying to find a picture, but not succeeding.

                1. re: bitsubeats

                  Yes, that looks more like what I ate, although the ones I ate had more of a phallic protuberence, hence the confusion when Erica posted her description of the kaebul. That was a very informative site, bitsubeats! Thanks very much.

                  I must admit, I tried it a couple of time in Korean, but I was not the hugest fan of mung gae. I found it had a bitter flavour that I couldn't quite enjoy, and the crunchy bits threw me for a loop too. Both times, we ate them as Hwe (raw with kochujang and raw garlic). The first time, we were on Jeju Island, and we ate the mung gae as part of the daily catch of the women divers, along with some abalone, on a beach. The abalone was delicious. The mung gae I ate out of politeness, but I was not so thrilled. Still it was certainly Fresh! The second time, it came out as an appetizer in a Hwe restaurant. It was the same.

                  Still, I'd try it again if I am offered. I am trying to convince my parents to plan another trip to Korea with me! They may be taking the bait...

            2. re: erica

              These are the creatures..does anyone know what they are:

              1. re: erica

                i think its a type of sea cucumber

                1. re: Lau

                  Thanks, Lau. Pretty odd looking, right? I finally figured out how to post pics on CH, hence the revival of this older thread..in case anyone was wondering.

                2. re: erica

                  ya that is a form of sea cucumber. I was there at that market this summer also; it was awesome. live octopus was great; did you eat the eye?

                  personally, I didn't like the sea squirts though.

                  1. re: bigjeff

                    sea squirts are kind of weird, they just taste like salt water when you bite into them, they're okay if its in a stew

                    im not the biggest fan of sea cucumber, its decent, but it doesn't really taste like much, ill eat it, but its usually really expensive if its any good

                  2. re: erica

                    If you're talking about the penis shaped ones, they are called Gae-bul. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urechis_...

                    Above the penis shaped stuff and above right are two types of sea cucumbers, or Hae Sam, and top right are sea squirts - Mung Gae.

                    I've never had Gae Bul but mung gae and hae sam are definitely acquired tastes...IMO a little soju to wash everything down is an absolute must.

                    1. re: joonjoon

                      So the mystery is solved! Gae Bul! Many thanks...but I am not going to rush around looking for them here in NY. I do have my personal limits!

                3. re: Polecat

                  I had this for the first time recently when I was in Seattle. While it tasted just fine what I found most disconcerting was the thought of the tentacles attaching themselves to the interior of my throat as I was swallowing them. In order to prevent this I just made sure to chew each piece VERY thoroughly :D

                    1. re: dagoose

                      It was at a sushi place in Shoreline. I forget what it's called. It's on Aurora and it has a big ugly blue sign. I think the place used to a be a Chinese restaurant.

                      1. re: dagoose

                        i think blim is talking about bada hoeh center or it's english name 'bada sushi'. great korean sashimi.


                4. Polecat
                  Thank you for explaining the process to me. I had visions of people slicing up and consuming a living creature, piece by piece. It sounded horrific, even for our jaded senses.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Tay

                    Given the name, it sounds more gruesome and surreal than it actually is. Erica's description (see above) is pretty much on the money, though. If you don't like eating moving parts, this dish might not go down so well.

                    1. re: Polecat

                      I think it's a safe bet to say this dish will never, ever be consumed by me. Just the thought makes me shudder.

                    2. re: Tay

                      Eddie Lin of the Deep End Dining blog, and fomer LA chowhound poster, has a video on his site eating live octopus at Prince restaurant in LA's Koreatown. This will give you a good visual on what to expect.

                    3. All due respect Polecat, defending something like that as a "cultural thing" is an enormous fucking cop-out. The Chinese like to keep bears alive to tap their bile for medicinal purposes too, but the cultural angle doesn't excuse it. I'm pretty much off octopus entirely anyway after finding out about their level of intelligence and sensitivity (and it's not easy considering how delicious good grilled Greek octopus can be) but eating a freshly killed squirming plate of it is ENTIRELY different than tucking into a steak, no matter how rare. Why not just seek out one of those Indiana Jones-style live monkey brain banquets? There's a reason people eat ortolan with a napkin over their faces and only some of it is to protect the diners from squirting oil. It's a shameful practice. Like this san-nak-ji business and I'll have none of it.
                      IMH, somewhat O (outraged), O

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: HankyT

                        to each their own and i understand your argument about the octopus and its intelligence (and i can respect that), but id like to understand how you think a steak is better than san nak ji? i mean if they served you the steak right after they killed the cow how is that any better than eating the steak a few weeks later? As one of the posts pointed out the octopus is dead when you eat it, it simply moves b/c of nerves just like a chicken running around if you cut off the head (and its obviously dead)

                        1. re: HankyT

                          "...eating a freshly killed squirming plate of it is ENTIRELY different than tucking into a steak, no matter how rare..."

                          how so? dead is dead, no?
                          i think the issue here - and perhaps this is fodder for a whole other thread - is, is the animal suffering? all evidence, as far as we know it in the case of live octopus, would indicate that the animal is not suffering. or, if it did suffer, its' suffering is over. if that is the case, then does it really matter when the animal was killed? i know that, in the case of some of the freshest fish and sushi around, the fish's mouth continues to move, in some cases for several minutes, following death. it's just that, in the case of sushi, we don't have to bear witness to it. for that matter, most of us never have to bear witness to the way animals are killed in order for us to eat a steak or a burger.

                          and, yeah, the animals we choose to kill, the food we choose to eat, the way we choose to eat it is most definitely cultural. by that i mean that, in the case of live octopus, for instance, it is considered by a great many korean people to be drinking food. they are more used to it, and, hence, less grossed out by it. by that same token, there are some cultures that won't go near meat; they might be just as outraged as you are by the live octopus dish.

                          1. re: Polecat

                            It seems barbaric to me -- maybe not to the octopus if it is in fact dead already -- but it takes the diner down to a cruel level to play the role of a gloating, indulgent conquerer. Why else would you eat it that way? Because you can. I don't know about you, but I don't need to feel as if I have defeated my food. A humanely killed cow (I know that term could -- and no doubt does -- support multiple boards all by itself), cut into steaks and prepared, doesn't have to illustrate its former animate state as I eat it. I'm not hiding from the fact that it was alive. I appreciate what it went through to end up on my plate and I don't take it for granted. But to ask that it perform a twitchy dance macabre as i tuck into it is not necessary. That seems like added and wholly unnecessary cruelty.

                        2. No. Civilizations have sharp divisions between them, and eating live animals mark a distinction between one side and the other. If you subscribe to pan-cultural relativism then you can eat human brains with the headhunters in Borneo. If not, then we have to stand our ground in what could be called a fully civilized society. Cuisine has vast cultural implications, and eating live animals mark where the status of those implications rest.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: NYJewboy

                            Yes... but one has to remember that clams and oysters on the half shell often are not fully expired when eaten.

                            1. Hey, it's a guy thing connected to testosterone levels. The Korean equivalent of eating Jalapenos at a sports bar. Two year ago, this month, our son got married in Seoul. At the rough equivalent of a bachlelor's party my sons and their friends took me to a bar that specialized in in octopus. I have the reputation of being an adventurous eater and this was my test. I honestly admit I was challenged. It held absolutely no appeal. So I did what any self-respecting middle-aged meat -head would do. I played the So Ju delaying tactic. Eventually I got, for an agnostic, So Juish, that I felt my alcohol fueled bravado kick in and attacked those wiggling, sucking little hunks of flesh with gusto and survived with my manly, brave-eating reputation intact. Weren't half bad, an acquired taste. Seriously though, food is so very cultural, that I think one has a hard time understanding it. I feel, westerners can never know or more importantly feel, the revulsion, devote Muslims in the Middle and Far East feel at the idea of eating pork(Is ham the filthy pig's ass?) and even shell fish. Would I go out of my to order octopus? I think not. Would I have an easier time eating it again? Definitely.
                              What I find funny is how some "Mericans will eat one mammal with gusto, but are disgusted by the consumption of another. But that's another thread. Peace.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Passadumkeg

                                I hope, that in no way did I come across as laughing at or demeaning the people of Korea or its customs. Its men I'm laughing at and as one, I'm entitled to do that. I was very impressed w/ Seoul and the Korean people and culture and can't wait to return. I feel our son is very lucky to have married the wonderful woman that he has and am very happy about it.
                                Anyone planning to visit Korea and really wants to get to know it should learn about "Temple Stay". For around $10, one can stay at many Buddhist temples throughout the country, have a simple vegetarian meal w/ the monks, pray w/ them and have a futon for the night.
                                The only truly odd food I saw was at a cheap stir fry place where they have a "camp stir fry" which features hot dogs, Viena sausage and Spam. Oh, what has the American military wrought?

                              2. Very interesting thread. I'm a North American born Korean, and I have definitely not been exposed to some of the more esoteric items eaten by Koreans back in Korea. There are several concepts in play when discussing the Korean extreme cuisine items:

                                1. Wartime mentality: When there is nothing to eat, anything is edible. A lot of Korean "treats" are nostalgic in nature. For example, American GI hardtack is now a snack biscuit, as many wartime Korean children remember being thrilled to get these biscuits from the GIs. My Dad mentioned something about Bundaegi, the silk worm larvae that they sell as street snacks throughout Korea, and how after the war, everyone got used to them. People love these things, they are like chips or popcorn. I just found them vile. You get used to things in your own culture. So dried squid in Korea is the equivalent of chips here in North America.

                                2. Korea is a seaside nation, with not much land to grow crops and large animals like cows. It is very mountainous. So you eat what have handy, like squid, octopus, bright pink phallic items.

                                3. Koreans are big on the machismo thing. Even in North America, the men used to sit around at dinner parties, egging each other on in eating large amounts of very spicy food. They'd be sitting there, the sweat pouring off their brows, groaning "Ai gu... Well that's very spicy, but my wife makes even spicier..." It was somewhat oddly endearing. Anyhow, the octopus thing falls into this category of eating, Machismo drinking games.

                                Koreans in general like to freak you out. I just saw an episode of "Delicious TV" the Korean food show, where they showed several people ice fishing for these tiny minnow-like fish. They would pull them off the line, dip them in kochuchang (chile pepper paste) and eat them live. (Not like the octopus; these things were definitely alive when consumed). This is no different than the kid in high school who swallowed the gold fish live. Except in Korea, this is more acceptable behavior, partly due to the Machismo factor. Also, if you can afford fresh seafood (as opposed to dried, preserved products), this is a sign that you are wealthy (again, more Machismo).

                                4. Koreans love fresh food. In seafood, that means recently alive seafood. If it is still wiggling, you know it's fresh.

                                5. Korean cuisine, like many Asian cuisines, puts an important emphasis on the health benefits of various dishes. Taste is important, but people will eat something that doesn't taste that great if they think there are health benefits to be gained. Bitter flavours are more easily tolerated, as in Ginseng, and various mountain herbs. The health benefits of spleen are well known, whereas in North America the spleen is considered "unfit for human consumption". There are also the various "aphrodisiac/Old World Viagra" food items. Name a food item in Korea, and they will find a Food Professor to expound on the health benefits of that food. I am not sure what the health benefits of Korean "live" octopus are, but I am sure there is a culinary expert that can explain what they are.

                                Gotta love the tribe...

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: moh

                                  Live octopus = increased strength and stamina in physical activity I think.

                                  1. re: hannaone

                                    Yes, that makes absolute sense!

                                  2. re: moh

                                    Live foods increase the yang (as in yin/yang) energy in a person.

                                    1. re: moh

                                      Moh, In #2 of your well-thought-out post you mentioned pink phallic items. As I mentioned above, I saw these at Noryangin fish Market in Seoul (where I ate the octopus) What the heck are they?? They looked like..well, you know what they look like. I know they come from the sea because there were heaps of them at the fish market...

                                      1. re: erica

                                        I wish i could tell you what they were. I couldn't tell if they were some kind of sea cucumber type creature or some variant of a sea slug, or if they were related to anemones, or whether they were related to starfish or what. Suffice to say they were not so pleasant for my taste... I'll see if i can try to find out...

                                        1. re: moh

                                          Thanks! Very gutsy on your part to even taste them!

                                    2. From what I've read, the manner of eating dog in Korea is much more barbaric. I'm pretty indifferent to octopus, or oyster.

                                      1. I enjoy grilled octopus and mixed ceviche with octopus, but I would draw the line short of eating them live. Octopi are fascinating, intelligent animals in their habitat. Part of their diet is juvenile conch, which they basically suck out of their shells. Most other conch predators, usually sharks and rays, just crush conch like pistachios. The octupus places the evacuated conch shells in a neat little pile near the craggy structure where it lives. They are fastidiously tidy with their "trash". That is often how divers know an octopus lives nearby and can locate it. And then the octopus, far from being menacing or scared if approached gently, will crawl all over you in curiosity, and then with gentle persuasion return to it's crags. I'm sure many C'hound divers have enjoyed a similar commune with nature in this form, and it gives one pause about how/what we eat.