Young Octopus Delight

08 Dec 2008
Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture


I have to leave in a few minutes to find out how much "vacation school" I'm going to be teaching during the upcoming winter break, but just wanted to share a hosik experience I had last week, which included:

  1. Making a quick stop with Mr. Song at his Secret Garden. He owns a couple acres of land in Gunsan (close to our apartment) that he has turned into a wildflower extravaganza... he is apparently one of the leading wildflower experts in Korea (he's the head of a sizable internet group), and grows over 300 varieties throughout his garden. Of course everything is pretty much dormant now, but the garden still offers a nice retreat, and I can't wait to see it in Spring.
  2. Hiking straight up a mountain for 3 hours (yes, don't ask me how, but the mountain was uphill both ways--more like up-cliff, actually).
  3. Feasting at a raw seafood restaurant.

Now the raw seafood restaurant works like this: you walk in, take your shoes off, and look at the fish and eel and octopus and squid and jellyfish you are about to eat, swimming around in a tank. Then you think "nice fishtank." Then you realize that those are actually the fish you are about to eat. And then you eat them.

And yes, when I say fish I do mean octopus and squid and jellyfish and eel and oysters, and eveyr other kind of seafood you can imagine. All raw.

My basic rule of thumb is if a Korean eats it, I eat it. I kept my rule, but not easily. I mean, the raw fish was nothing, and the raw squid was actually pretty tasty. But when it came time to eat a thing they called "young octopus," I had to hold my stomach down. "Young octopus" is a whole octopus that is very slimy, and looks half-formed, and has large eyeballs that stare up at you and say "Why? WHY? WHY?"

More photos from the hike.

On a different note entirely, some of you may have noticed that we've switched over to Flickr for our photo hosting... not quite as integrated with our website, but our lousy hosting plan just wasn't handling the images very well. Anyway, the "Photos" link at the top of the blog will now take you to our flickr "photostream."

My hat is off to you

Wow. I think had i been in your situation, i would have decided that this was one of those times that rules are meant to be broken. I'm impressed. And maybe a little disgusted.

extreme cultural adaptation

Yes, this is the sport they call "extreme cultural adaptation" - I am amazed at the totally of your application of the "eat what the locals eat" principle. I admire your adaptation, and am quite impressed by the wide range of unusual (to me) things you've been eating. I would be pressed to keep up with you (though I would try; but I'm not sure I really want to try the young octopus, after your description). You may come out of Korea with some strange (to others) eating habits! :-) And definitely, with some excellent stories for entertaining friends by the fireside.


You've got some nice pictures there... next time you're in Chungju, I need to take you to the mountain pass by the dam, which I visited for the first time on Saturday with a Korean teacher. As you crest the ridge you hit a landscape that is now a top contender for my personal Most Beautiful Place On Earth. My jaw dropped, but my camera cannot do it justice. I need your skills!

I think the only weird Korean thing left for you to try (apart from dog, of course) is live octopus. This dish is really quite easy to prepare: you take an octopus out of its tank and cut it up with a sharp knife. The pieces go straight from the knife into your mouth, so they're still moving (I have been told that tentacle bits will attempt to grab your lips so that they can't be eaten). Actually, this food makes me feel sorry for the octopus---they are very intelligent creatures, yet here we are dismembering and consuming them while they live!

PS: Hang on, so did you actually eat jellyfish? Did they remove the tentacles for you?


@Matthew: I did indeed eat jellyfish, and it appeared to be fully intact... I tried to get a stinger-less piece, however, and I seem to have been successful, as there wasn't any real pain as the jelly slid down... there was however a strange hard bit in the middle of the jelly bit that I couldn't quite account for...
@Jed: Yeah... I was awfully tempted to give up on my "rule"... and if I meet the live Octopus that Matthew speaks of I am going to be really, really hard-pressed to keep it.


Well, I already like octopus sashimi, so I guess that there's not really any difference with the live octopus apart from the fact that it's moving. Like I said, I would feel bad for the animal, but that's going to be its fate whether I'm the one eating it or not... so I would do it.

Maybe the hard thing in the jellyfish was some half-digested little fish that it had caught just before you ate it? Remember, "jellyfish have an incomplete digestive system, meaning that the same orifice is used for both food intake and waste expulsion." Perhaps you were eating some part of the jellyfish near the, uh, orifice.

some other random questions

Some random questions about your raw fish adventure:

1. Who paid (or is that still a mystery)?
2. Is is basically "all you can eat"? Do people expect to try everything? Did your Korean friends only eat certain things, or try it all?
3. Is the drink with this the (ever-present?) Soju? Do they drink other things, like tea, soft drinks?
4. Do they have "desert" with meals like this (or was the young octopus, desert)?

Since you seem to be about 95% of the way there, in terms of trying Korean food (unless there are still undiscovered territories out there), you might as well do dog and live Octopus. It'd be a shame to be so close, and not complete the adventure. :-)

And make sure to include illustrations of this experience in your (you & Marisa's) children's books. :-)

Some Answers

  1. It's still a mystery about who pays. I think the school covers it somehow.
  2. Yes, the fancy meals like this are always all you can eat. If you finish anything, they just  bring out more. I'm not sure exactly what's "expected" of me as a foreign teacher... if I refused something and explained that it was too foreign to me they would probably accept that, but they probably wouldn't think I was as cool. Most of the Koreans seem to eat more or less everything... occasionally someone will pass up a dish, but it doesn't seem all that common.
  3. At school lunches we never drink during the meal... you get a glass of warm, barley-stewed water after the meal; this is of course the healthiest way to eat/drink, as it forces you to eat more slowly/chew more, and the warm water draws blood to your stomach: both good for digestion. When we go out for hosik things change a bit: there's lots of Soju during the meal, and if you're a real man, that's all you drink. Water is generally available though, and women are allowed to stop drinking alcohol after a polite half-glass, and usually turn to soda or water.
  4. They don't really have dessert. At the fancy meals there is some course-style eating (the soup usually comes out at a certain point, for example), but again, nothing we would call dessert. Ocassionally at school lunches you'll get something like a tangerine, or a yogurt, or a red-bean doughnut to finish off your meal, but that isn't the norm.

And yes, since I am 95% of the way there I don't think I could let myself decline dog or live octopus.


I should add that I have been told by several co-teachers that the Korean restaurant tradition is descended from the "Royal Court Cuisine" of the Joseon Dynasty, not in terms of the dishes served, but in terms of the basic philosophy of the food: excess. To create an atmosphere of prosperity and good cheer, there must be more food than the group could conceivably consume; thus it's not exactly "all-you-can-eat." It feels more like you're walking into a place with an infinite quantity (and variety) of vittles and simply eating until you are stuffed. At some restaurants the meal ends with a sort of desserty thing consisting of the burned rice at the bottom of the pot put in a tea of honey and spices; I'm sure you'll see it soon, Jordan. (Despite the "burned rice" description, it's really quite good.)

My experience differs from Jordan's slightly insofar as I've never seen people drinking anything but water during a meal; the soju and cider only come out after the diners have started using toothpicks and drinking their burned-rice-honey tea. But of course culinary traditions vary strongly from region to region in Korea; Jordan's area was historically part of the Baekje Kingdom, while Chungju was successively controlled by all of the Three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla) and thus has a somewhat atypical and multifaceted local culture (especially when it comes to food: I have been served dishes people tell me come from all over Korea).

Beans rule; they don't move

Jordan, you reminded me why I'm vegetarian! I do wish you all the best in eating fish, eel, octopus and all other walking, creeping, swimming things. You've given me an idea for a new eating rule: if it moves or ever moved I don't eat it. Thanks!