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Friday, 20 October 2006

Eating Raw in Korea

Written by Edward Campbell
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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.

Unfortunately, we were compelled to eat some parts of the shrimp which, we found out, were not so delicious – namely, the heads. They are mostly shell, so you have suck out the goo inside. There’s a blue or green mushy organ (what passes for a brain) in there; lobsters have them too, and some people and cultures believe it’s the best part, but I strongly disagree.

It’s considered polite to put the inedible parts of the food on the table, not back onto a plate. Our Korean friends ate everything that was remotely edible, but if we choose to pass on something (like shrimp heads) they didn’t give us a hard time about it. They were still really impressed that I’d tried the octopus and that my wife and I liked the Soju.



When they finally brought out the raw fish, we ate it eagerly. It was cut into very thin slices, which were neatly arranged in tapered stacks atop a bed of shredded cabbage on a wooden tray. There were many different slices from either several fish or different sections of the fish - some had gray streaks, some red, but it was all whitish and somewhat clear – raw, of course, and expertly sliced while the fish was still alive. It doesn’t get any fresher.

This dish can be eaten alone, with the hot paste, or wrapped in a leaf of lettuce. It was fantastic, though my wife asked for a few more of the other cooked things, such as deep fried slices of sweet potato. All the while, the original dishes were refilled and new ones kept coming, at the request of our companions or not. The meal wasn’t over after the raw fish, either; I’d figured it was, and I’d figured that I was too full for any more. But I was wrong.

Our smiling waitresses brought out little gas burners, which they placed before us on the tables. Shallow pots of red, extremely spicy broth were placed onto them, with some stringy green vegetables submerged within. Into the bubbling broth went the as-of-yet-unused parts of the fish: the head, tail, and spine. While we waited for it to cook, still more small dishes came out. One of them was full of tiny crabs, which were raw and pickled in a hot, strong sauce. The idea was to rip a crab in half, put it in your mouth, and suck and chew until you’ve only got shell left. I thought it was a little salty.

Once the soup was served, we found that a similar method of eating was used for the fish’s head and tail. Luckily we didn’t have the highest status at the table - our boss got the head. He broke it into a bite-sized piece, put it in his mouth, and the next time I saw it, it was only bone.

I got some good pieces of what was left of the meat. It had fallen off of the bone and was so spicy that I feared it would make permanent burn marks in my mouth. There’s this blend of spice they use on many kinds of food, which is fermented red pepper, garlic, bean paste, and innumerable other combinations of ingredients. It is used in many soups and for the staple food, Kimchee, which is fermented cabbage and other veggies covered with a variation of the sauce. Kimchee is eaten with every meal and can be cooked in many ways. Some Koreans traveling will bring Kimchee along, in fear of going without it and experiencing some kind of withdrawal.

Someone must have noticed that my wife didn’t like the soup, because more shrimp was brought out. This time, a pot was placed on the table, in front of my boss, who reached into it and snatched up a shrimp. He then passed the pot to me, and I did the same, grabbing at the shrimp blindly. I grabbed one, and it thrashed against my hand and wrist until my boss nudged me, showing me how to hold the shrimp upside down by the tail, so it can’t move. He then tore off the shell and ate it, and nodded at me to do the same. I looked around – most of the Koreans at the table had an upside down shrimp in their hands and looked ready to tear into them, and my wife was looking at me like I was crazy.

Tearing the shell off the living creature was pretty gruesome, but I must admit that the wiggling raw shrimp was quite good. There was a cool sweetness too it, and it had a fantastic texture that yielded itself to the teeth with minimal biting – it was softer even than the raw fish. Still, the process of getting the thing out of the pot and out of its shell wasn’t particularly easy, so I declined seconds.

We didn’t leave until hours later, when everyone was full, or drunk, or both. My boss paid for the entire meal because he had invited everyone. No one would think of trying to offer him any money – it would be terribly rude. They drove us home and laughed at our hangovers the next morning. After reflecting on the prior evening, we agreed that though the food was at times terrifying, it was one of the most memorable and delicious meals we had ever eaten.

©Edward Campbell

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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