The Strangest Bite I’ve Ever Bitten

November 30, 2008 at 2:13 pm (Uncategorized)

  Although I was born and raised in the United States, most food did not surprise me even after I moved to Korea because I was exposed to Korean cuisine all my life.  Rice and an assortment of banchan was my daily meal;  I laughed as my blonde friends ogled at the pickled cabbages and spiced fish in our fridge.  But I was quickly humbled in fourth grade when my parents took me for a trip down in MokpoMokpo is right next to the ocean, and hosts a thriving fish market.  From all directions Ajummas and Ajushis yelled orders at each other whilst rushing about with buckets of fish, others waved black vinyl bags of freshly cut fish and haggled loudly with customers.

  It was at this fish market that I discovered people could eat the strangest things.  I marveled at sea cucumbers and slithering eels, wondering how my ancestors came to the conclusion that they should actually capture and consume these ugly creatures.     But the most disgustingly fascinating of them all was the nakji (octopus minor).   I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they slithered in the tank, oozing about with their pale tentacles.  Just when I was starting to lose interest, suddenly the ajumma expertly dunked her hand into the tank and yanked one out.  I stared in horror as it desperately tripped to wriggle out of her grip; it flailed its tentacles and wrapped itself around her outstretched arm.  My father excitedly exclaimed to me in rapid Korean, “Saehaya! You must try this! It’s called sannakji; I know you’ll love it.”  I never rejected octopi when it was placed in front of me at the dinner table, but I never really embraced it either.  So I just silently nodded at my father’s suggestion, intimidated.  But as soon as I decided to be brave, the ajumma plunked the poor octopus minor onto her chopping block and deftly severed its eight legs into sixteen, then thirty two pieces.  She scooped the wriggling pieces onto a plate and lightly seasoned them with sesame oil.  She placed the plate in front of us and gave me a wide smile.  My father started snickering when he caught my expression, and then his laugh turned to hysterics when I whimpered.  My father picked his wooden chopsticks up and smacked his lips.  He caught a squirming leg and held it out to me.  I shook my head, feeling sick to my stomach.  My father sighed, “I can’t believe you’re letting me down like this, Saehaya.  Every Korean should try sannakji at least once in their life.”   Whether it was simply because I didn’t want to disappoint him, or because he implied that I was not a true Korean if I didn’t eat it, somehow what he said struck a nerve.  I gazed at the glistening piece of sannakji and winced, sourly opened my mouth, and dreaded the squirming leg to enter. 



It wriggled in my mouth and stuck to my tongue.  I ripped it off my tongue and started to chew.  It was chewy, too chewy.  I was expecting a bitter, gross taste, but to my surprise it didn’t taste like much; it was a bit salty, with the faint flavor of sesame oil.   But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t any less a strange experience. 


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