Monday, May 2, 2011

Eating and Uneating Live Octopus

In a number of Asian countries that border the sea, including Korea, seafood plays an immensely important role in the food culture. Freshness of seafood is of the utmost importance. It is sometimes, by my own finicky Western standards, a little too fresh.

"Is the octopus okay? It doesn't look well," J says concernedly. She gently squishes the clear plastic baggie to get a reaction from the octopus.

No reaction.

"Let me open the bag a little to give it air," she continues. "Octopuses need air, don't they?" Then she pauses contemplatively. "Octopuses? Or octopi?"

"Really?" I think. "That's the part you're questioning?"

(It was a snide thought, but don't worry; like all good moral tales, the snide person -- which would be me, in this case -- gets her comeuppance by the end.)

"And its little tentacle looks stuck," J laments.

She opens the baggie and squishes the octopus a bit more vigorously. "Hey, it's still living!"

J shows a surprising amount of solicitude for something she plans on devouring alive in less than an hour, but then again, I'm pretty sure she is drunk. Actually, I'm pretty sure most of the people who soon thereafter gather at the table to eat live octopus have been drinking heavily. I'd even go so far as to wager that the majority of people around the world who eat live animals typically accompany or precede the meal with a large quantity of alcohol. Regrettably, I have not.

While it is not uncommon in Asia for a man to eat an entire small, live octopus by himself simply by putting the whole thing in his mouth, this particular octopus is meant to be shared among a table of people.

W cuts it up. The entire plate full of octopus pieces squirms. Chow down.

"Uh, can I just have a little piece?" I ask.

Someone digs through the writing mass of octopus to find a smallish tentacle end.

"Here you go."

I reach over for it, and the tentacle reflexively wraps itself around my chopstick. I bathe it in the sticky red hot sauce for palatability's sake, and after several false starts, accompanied by a little pre-dinner gagging, place it into my mouth.

"Make sure to chew fast or else the suckers will latch onto the insides of your cheek," someone advises.

"That would suck," I think (and hear a tiny, imaginary rim shot), and I chew vigorously for what I estimate to be several hundred times in a row. However much I chew doesn't seem to make a difference to the animal in my mouth. It is like making a meal of bubble gum. My teeth can make no dent on the thing. I even -- though this is probably just my imagination by this point -- feel like it is still twitching inside my mouth.

I chew it even faster, if possible, while my imagination takes control. What if I swallow it and it's still alive? What if it continues squirming inside my stomach for years? What if the octopus tentacle uses its suckers to latch onto my appendix or my liver? (I opted for botany in lieu of biology as my science requirement in university. In moments of panic, this sometimes shows.)

I can't do it. While those with a biology background (or any other background built on logic, per say, versus a humanities background like mine -- motto: we heart pretending and pretension) may file my reasoning in this matter under the "crazies" category, I just can't swallow the tentacle while envisioning it alive inside me. After chewing the octopus upwards of five hundred times, I spit it out into a napkin and put it away for safe keeping inside a garbage bin.

Just think, a little over a year ago, I received my first serving of boiled octopus in Korea, which I steadfastly refused to eat. I've come a long way since then!

(But not really . . .)


  1. Hi! I found your blog through the recommendations of Good and Lost. What a terrific story! I wouldn't even be able to put it into my mouth - that was really brave!

  2. Haha, thanks Katherina. If I'd really been brave, though, I would have actually eaten it instead of changing my mind half way through. :)