When visiting Korea for the first time over the summer, sannakji was definitely on my foodie bucket-list. Sannakji is a Korean raw octopus dish most famous for being served still moving. It’s such a strange food concept that Andrew Zimmern sampled it on an episode of Bizarre Foods.
I tried this Korean delicacy at the Noryangjin Fish Market. First, I had to choose (and purchase) my octopus. There are tanks of live, baby octopus squirming around, and the stand-owner simply grabs one out of the tank, presents it to you and repeats until you’ve decided on one.
Once I decided on an octopus, it was transported upstairs to a restaurant that would prepare it; having the restaurants right above the market ensures that all of the seafood served is extremely fresh.
Sannakji is prepared by chopping up the octopus, drizzling with sesame oil, sprinkling on some sesame seeds and serving immediately with a gochujang dipping sauce.
When it’s presented, the tentacles are still squirming around, even though the octopus is no longer alive. This is due to excess nerve activity in the tentacles, even though the nerves are no longer connected to the animal’s brain. The active suction cups are also dangerous; sannakji is considered a “dangerous food” due to choking hazards and reportedly kills six people a year.
The first bite was definitely intimidating—the tentacles are difficult to grab with chopsticks, as they’re moving surprisingly fast, and when they’re finally clamped between two chopsticks, they squirm and suction to whatever they can.
Once I finally got the courage to put the wriggling tentacle in my mouth, I was pleasantly surprised. There was an immediate, subtle sesame flavor from the oil and seeds, but the octopus itself didn’t taste like much other than a hint of sea-flavor.
The texture, on the other hand, was a very different experience. Raw octopus is a lot more rubbery than cooked octopus. So rubbery that it’s almost gelatinous (think a really firm Jell-O). That, and its tiny suction cups are actively sticking to your tongue and the sides of your mouth. It’s a very strange sensation, yet I really enjoyed it.
After a while, the octopus (sadly) stops moving. Once it stops moving, the flavor remains the same, but I must say that it’s a lot less fun to eat. If you chew thoroughly, there’s nothing scary about this dish. If you ever find yourself in Korea, definitely try sannakji—even if it’s not your favorite, it makes a pretty great story.