By Michael Jeter
It was my brother’s fault, really. He came to visit me in Seoul – where I was teaching English – intent on having the quintessential Korean experience. He had seen a Korean movie a few months before in which the protagonist, in a moment of despair and recklessness, started stuffing his face with sannakji [san-nak-jee]. What is sannakji? Nakji is the word for a small octopus, and san means, well, “alive.”
Thus as my brother’s host and guide, I found myself sitting on plastic lawn chair at one of the thousands of street stalls that spring up on the sidewalks of Seoul each night. Waves of people swarm by us, lit by the ubiquitous neon signs.
But all I see is the nakji. To one side sits my brother, to the other my Korean co-worker, and the tank full of octopi just beside him – floating and falling over each other in the water, a mass of tentacles and suction cups and bulbous heads.
A few words in Korean to the middle-aged woman who runs the stall and soon our very own nakji is pulled out of the tank, maybe a foot and a half long, slapped on a cutting board, and cut into manageable pieces. The only problem is, the pieces haven’t stopped moving.
I’m reluctant to dive in. My coworker laughs and snaps up a piece with his chopsticks, dips it in soy sauce, and chews and swallows with ease. I decide on the smallest tentacle piece I can find. It seems to know I’m coming for it, and writhes back and forth as I try to nab it between the ends of my chopsticks. I dip it in the soy sauce then pull it up a few inches from my face, watching it move back and forth in its irregular squirming motion.
“Don’t think about it,” I tell myself.
“Too late.” I think back.
I quickly put the tentacle in my mouth and start chewing feverishly. After about 40 chews I surmise that I’ve chewed it into submission, so I pause, swallow, and reach for my water glass. Met with this success and the cheers of encouragement from the others, I feel a lot braver, and take up another piece. Many chews later, I again swallow with ease.
Unfortunately, I start letting success go to my head, and decide that maybe I’ll put the next piece in my mouth and wait a second to see what happens. I place it on my tongue, close my mouth, brace myself, and…. feel it starting to suction onto my tongue! Instinct takes over and I’m immediately chewing like my life depended on it.
Lesson learned, I decide not to take any more risks, and stick to the formula: Grab, dip, chew, swallow, and remind myself that whatever movie my brother sees next, from now on I’m sticking to food that doesn’t try to stick to me.