One of the most intriguing things about eating in Korea is that occasionally the food can be delicious and frightening at the same time.
My wife and I were very new in Korea, having relocated there only a month earlier to work at a local private school when one night, while we were relaxing in a small park, our boss found us and invited us to an important dinner at a raw fish restaurant. He’d been searching all over the town for us - through the endless rows of uniform apartment buildings with slices of business between them, and amongst the restaurants, pubs, saunas and norebongs, which are wildly popular private karaoke rooms. He walked up barefoot and bowed. We were surprised to see him outside of work.
We drove to the coast, to a neighborhood full of restaurants close to the docks. The street was framed with fish tanks, which contained every kind of edible sea creature; including sea cucumbers, giant clams, and long, smooth sea worms. Behind the tanks were the restaurants’ plate glass windows. There must have been around 30 restaurants in total, and they all looked exactly the same: brown, faux-wood floors, no chairs, and coolers full of beer and liquor.
We entered one and sat cross-legged on the floor around a large, low table, which quickly filled up with bowls and dishes containing a variety of foods meant to be shared by everyone. It was almost exclusively seafood – oysters, clams, unknown large and small shellfish, and scallops. Much of it was raw. Our hosts had been trying to scare us during the car ride by reminding us that most foreigners don’t like raw seafood, but by now we were feeling pretty confident about the dinner, happily eating every freshly-killed creature that was passed our way. We were drinking Soju – the nation’s favorite liquor, which is similar to vodka, but weaker yet somehow more dangerous. Part of its danger comes from the price, which is usually less than a dollar a bottle. When someone older than you pours you a drink, you must accept it by holding the glass with two hands, or by resting your second hand on the arm of the hand holding the glass. This shows respect.
Next came one of the specialties: a dish full of sliced yet still-wiggling octopus tentacles. The small pieces twisted and rolled over each other, their suction cups rhythmically opening and closing. When someone lifted one or more of them with chopsticks the wiggling increased greatly. They were quickly dipped in hot pepper paste before being relocated to the mouth, where they were vigorously chewed, My wife looked horrified. Being drunk already, I tried one and didn’t think it was too bad. I ate a few more and noticed how the suction cups would get quite a grip on the insides of my cheeks, or even on a tooth! Once I stopped chewing, even though the piece was nearly chewed up, it still wiggled. That was the last one I ate.
By now our school’s bus driver was going around the table with the Soju. After he filled my shot glass, he handed the bottle to me, and I filled his. We drank, then he turned to the person next to me, poured another glass, and so forth.
Next came out the shrimp. It was hard to tell if they were actually shrimp at first, because they were brought out alive and thrashing in a shallow pot. The bottom of the pot contained a thick layer of salt, over which the creatures steamed themselves. Their huge antennae, some of which stuck out from under the glass lid of the pot, curled up and melted away. Once the thrashing stopped and the steam cleared, the familiar pink shapes became visible, and we realized that the doomed creatures were shrimp. Our sympathy disappeared with the first bite, which was delicious.