Tentacles are writhing in the plate in front of us and we’re going to have to eat them.
Actually, we’ve been looking all evening for a live octopus. It’s just that the reality is a little more alive than I expected.
Walking by the sea, we’re surrounded by young Korean soldiers, couples lighting fireworks off the rocks and cheap plastic inflatables that you pull around on a string. Ignoring all of them, we walk from restaurant to restaurant asking for sanakji.
Coming off the high of surviving a terrifying Viking Ship ride, we’re all confident that not only will there be live octopus, we will want to eat it when we find it. At least, I’m confident.
Three times, owners nod and smile, ushering us into their restaurants with promises of sanakji. Three times they then tell us there isn’t any octopus on a Tuesday, and maybe they hope we’ll be hungry enough to stay and eat at their restaurant anyway. But this has nothing to do with hunger.
When we finally climb the stairs of the first restaurant on the dodgy end, we’ve decided that if they don’t have octopus, we’ll just eat something else. The adrenaline of our near-death experience is wearing off and hunger is starting to encroach on the desire to eat something weird.
But for once, there actually is an octopus in one of their tanks and they’re going to chop it up for us. While sanakji is referred to as “live octopus”, it’s more of a “recently dead octopus.” When ordered, the octopus is chopped up alive and served on a plate, its muscles still jerking.
Crawling over itself, the oil-covered pieces of tentacle are hard to pick up with metal chopsticks. They resist and pull away or slide off, back onto the plate.
Shauna is watching me when I finally get a piece into my mouth. I remember that Asia told me to be sure to chew it thoroughly because the suckers can attach themselves to your throat and choke you.
I bite down hard and I feel the muscle tense and the suckers grip the inside of my cheek. Shauna winces. I chew again until the muscle relaxes and the tentacle is in smaller, deader pieces. I swallow. I try a smile and look back at the plate. There’s an awful lot left.
Picking up a pair of chopsticks, Shauna pokes them onto the plate. The first tentacle she tries to pick up crawls away from her. She pulls her hand back and puts the chopsticks down, “I can’t. I can’t eat that.”
Maybe if we’d found the octopus right away, that sense of bravery from surviving the Viking Ship would have carried us all through this meal. Instead, Maria also shakes her head. She’ll stick with the soup.
But I persist: this octopus did not die so that I could take one bite and waste the rest. Asia and I eat as much as we can, each bite a fight against a small piece of octopus. It seems to fight for its life, even with its life already over. The experience is primal and carnivorous and totally weird.
At the end of the meal, we step outside into the glow of a nighttime carnival and go immediately toward the carts of street food. My act of bravery complete, hunger is coming on strong and those tentacles were not particularly filling. What I need now is a fried potato on a stick. Or ice cream. Nothing with any sentience, please.