Off the Eaten Path: A Culinary Tour of Korea (Part One)
At first, I thought it was dead.
At least in most corners of the globe, this is what you assume when something is placed before you on a platter and you are handed metal chopsticks.
But this was not ‘most corners of the globe;’ this was Korea—and when I went in for a bite, my dinner met me with resistance.
It was Saturday night in the neon backstreets of Seoul, and I was sitting in a cramped sannakji joint that reeked of kimchi and tide pools. Despite the stench, I was hungry and thrilled—this was the reason I had come to Seoul; this was the first stop on my culinary tour of Korea.
Often overshadowed by its neighbors China and Japan, Korea is home to one of Asia’s most fascinating, unique, and underrated cuisines—a tantalizing assault of explosive flavors, volcanic spices, bewildering cooking methods, and creative (often terrifying) ingredients. The biggest challenge of undertaking such a tour (aside from the gastrointestinal clobbering) is the high cost of living and traveling in Korea—prohibitively high for lingering to write stories. So for the next week or two, Backpackology is taking a semi-hiatus as I hurriedly conduct my binge-eating blitzkrieg, before I return to the economic respite of China and get you up to speed. I’ve still got loads of stories from Mongolia on the way, but in the meantime, let me hold you over with some culinary previews from the land of puppies-for-breakfast.
The first item on my foodie checklist was perhaps one of the most fearsome and disconcerting.
“Don’t worry. Trying sannakji is an experience that everyone should try at least once,” grinned Lisa—confirming my suspicions that I was in deep shit.
Beneath the florescent glow of fish tanks, I sat sipping beer with a crew of American and Scottish expats. While most of the group had been teaching English in Korea for over a year, only Lisa and Siwaphon had ever dared to try sannakji, and it was Lisa who lead our foodie-expedition to this restaurant specializing in raw fish.
But sannakji wasn’t fish.
Sannakji was octopus.
Pffff, I scoffed. What’s the big deal about eating octopus?
As in Japan, sannakji is served hoe (raw), dipped lightly in soy sauce and wasabi. However, the Korean tradition of eating sannakji is only enjoyed in conjunction with the Korean tradition of getting belligerently wasted on soju rice wine. This is because you need to be properly shitfaced to think its a good idea to eat an animal while it’s still alive.
Siwaphon leaned towards me conspiratorially. “The trick with sannakji is that you need to swallow it head first. Otherwise it will stick its tentacles to your throat and you’ll choke to death.”
Typically the octopus is served whole, but perhaps the wait staff took pity on expressions of panic—our sannakji arrived diced into squirming, bit-sized portions…
Here’s a closer look and a second opinion from my expat host, Johnny.
I wasn’t prepared for the nightmare that arrived next.
My nose burned with the stench of rotting garbage as our server placed down a harrowing selection of banchan.
A defining characteristic of Korean cuisine is the proliferation of banchan (small side dishes) that accompany each main course. Like the chefs of India, Koreans believe that a good meal achieves a balance of flavors—salty, sweet, spicy, sour, vinegary, and tart. Each banchan is meant to intensely contrast the next, and with a good meal, you can expect as many as twelve banchan, including kimchi (spicy, fermented cabbage), caramelized pumpkin, glass noodles with meat, pickled seafood, vegetable pancakes, a soup or stew, spicy fermented radish, pickled garlic, and a million other curiosities that scream either ‘yummy,’ ‘Fear Factor,’ or ‘oh no, lava-fire.’
While sampling the different delicacies can be the highlight of a meal, the three banchan that followed our sannakji would make most children cry. Aside from the steaming pot of seaweed stew, our server presented us with a small plate of doenjang (several-years-old, rotted bean paste) and a tray of boendaegi—another item ranked on my to-do list: a heaping pile of foul, lukewarm silkworm larvae that reeks strongly of shit.
The doenjang bean paste was a fire-hose of potent, conflicting flavors, gloriously rancid and delicious. We wiped the plate clean.
As for the pile of boendaegi, I wish I could have said the same…
More dismal than the boendaegi were the reactions I received from expats upon showing them my foodie hit-list. They all smiled and nodded at dakgalbi, bulgogi, bibimbap, and samgyetang, but upon reaching the more exotic numbers—hongeo, yukhoe, gagang jegang, mettugi—their faces would twist in horror.
“You’re fucking insane,” suggested one expat.
“Nothing could be worse than Chinese, chili-powdered seahorse,” I declared.
Oh, how naïve and unimaginative I was then. That was only day one, before I sampled gagang gejang in Dongdaemun and soju in Andong.
That was before I ate my way across the peninsula, tracking down the disgusting, the divine, and the deplorably weird.
That was before I learned that Korea’s culinary rabbit hole had nowhere to go but down…