There’s something about a fish market.
Wet floors, people shouting as they try to sell you prawns out of a woven basket or point at large fish still swimming about in their tanks. The colors are brilliant and the fish scales gleam and shimmer in the overhead lights. Everything looks extremely chaotic but at the same time is immaculately sorted and organized.
We stopped by Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market on our way out of Seoul on Wednesday. We had all read about the market as a must-see in Seoul and one of the fish mongers was a guest at Soojin’s wedding and had invited us in to experience his restaurant as his guests.
We wandered through the aisles of raw fish across two floors. This market was a bit different from other experiences we’ve had. While other markets like Taiwan and Sydney had many different parts to it – sushi on one side, still swimming fish on the other side, and still, a barbecue pit around a final corner – the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market was pretty much the same all around.
Each hawker sold pretty much the same line up of fish and each stall was arranged in almost the exact same order. As we passed aunties and uncles holding up salmon fillets and squid tentacles, it seemed impossible to choose one person to buy our meal from. How could you tell who was better than another?
We settled on a sashimi platter, some prawns to grill, and octopus. Not just any old octopus, mind you, this was sannakji – a Korean delicacy that we had dared each other to try.
Once you’ve selected your food, you head upstairs to one of the restaurants and pass them your food to cook. Kind of like paying a corkage fee!
The food was lovely and the company even better. We were kind of in a hurry to make our flight so had to just dig in and get out of there.
Sannakji is octopus sashimi. It is a specific smaller type of octopus that is killed right before being served and sliced up onto a plate. Though the octopus is dead, the nerve endings in the tentacles keep the pieces wriggling around the plate. Kind of like a chicken with its head cut off or a gecko with its tail chopped off.
The squirming little octopus is sprinkled with sesame oil and topped off with toasted sesame seeds. The thrill and dare comes from the danger of eating sannakji. Since the nerve endings are still moving, the tentacles’ suction cups still contract and can potentially adhere to your throat, blocking your air passage, and resulting in choking and/or death.
About six people die every year from eating sannakji. Everyone in the group was taking bets on eating the octopus. Their confidence, I must presume, comes from them knowing that out of the 7-8 of us I would be the most likely to perish from the exercise!
When the time came, only Giove and I had the guts and chutzpah to go through with it. We dunked the octopus in the sesame oil and with our teeth tore it from the chopsticks where it had suctioned itself. It. was. CRAZY. The octopus flailed about in our mouths as we just chewed and chewed and chewed, fearful of accidentally swallowing any part of the tentacle before it was ready.
I’ve never chewed anything for so long. Every time we thought it might be ready to swallow, we turned to each other with fear in our eyes at potentially CHOKING and kept chewing. When finally we swallowed, we quickly drank all of the liquids at the table and then immediately both became very certain that it was stuck in our throats and this was the end. We would choke on half alive raw octopus tentacle on our last day in Seoul after a lovely trip. THIS WAS THE END.
Part of the practice is to immediately swig soju to prevent the tentacles from sticking to your throat. Since it was 11am and we were on our way to our flights, we had not ordered soju, adding to the (perceived) danger of the endeavor.
In the end we were fine. BUT we did definitely have slight panic attacks for the two hours following. Now, one week later, it’s entirely probably that there’s a piece still stuck to my throat and that my air passage is clogged. But so far so good.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone. It was cool to say we tried it but, seriously, the anxiety was super real and I didn’t like having it wiggling around in my mouth as I tried to chew. Strangeeeeeeeeee.
Bye Korea! You were amazing!