Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the Road . . . Korea: Food Courage

Penis Fish -- One "bizarre" food I did not try,
but thought you might enjoy seeing
What I have learned from watching Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain is that the idea of strange foods is a somewhat relativist term.  And, as I have watched them slurp intestines, chew bodily organs, and contemplate slimy specimens with relish and enthusiasm, I have almost come to believe them.  Emboldened by this, I went to Korean planning on trying the strangest food I could find— sannakji, or live octopus.

My first real test came on the day Kim’s friend Gavin took me to the market.  I had told him about my first trip and he took me back to help me get reoriented.  While walking, I had mentioned my one “bizarre food” goal of trying sundae.  Though the American spelling conjures a very different association, sundae is blood sausage, which is made from pig intestines and filled with pork blood, barley, and cellophane noodles.   We found a place and Gavin asked me if I wanted to try sundae or chicken feet.  I wimped out on the chicken feet and so sundae it was. 
 The stall we found sold sundae, liver, cheon byeon (crepes with vegetables rolled insdie) and kimchijeon (crepes with kimchi cooked in the crepe itself).  The crepes were fantastic and were my second favorite snack in Korea.  Very kindly, the man eating next to us gave us his order because he was full and wanted us to enjoy them.  They are light but have such a great sharpness and spiciness because of the kimchi.  The sundae was also pretty good.  I had black pudding in Ireland and was expecting a taste experience of iron and body, but the barley gave it a little texture, while the noodles make it a little gelatin like and combine with the barley to give chewiness and lightness.  The only thing I didn’t like was the liver.  I have had fried chicken liver on many occasions and so am fairly used to the flavor.   Ironically, I ate that first because I thought it would be safer and was not prepared for the strong flavor of organ and meat.  My guess is that it was actually pig’s liver instead, which might account for the amount of veins and the strong taste.  Between the two choices, give me blood pudding any day.
While on my food courage kick, Kim and her friends all took me out for sannakji.  You can evidently get sannakji two ways.  One is how we ordered it—a prep that involves cutting a live small octopus up with scissors and serving it while it is still wiggling.  Two, the whole octopus is placed, live, on a stick.  You then skillfully bite it in a strategic place so as to kill it, which keeps it from trying to crawl back out your throat while you are eating it.  On hearing that some have died while trying option two, I went with the former.   
As you can see from the video, they are really hard to get off the plate.  They are a little chewy and slimy and it is best to chew them as much as possible to prevent suctioning in the route from mouth to stomach.  This is the most tender way of getting octopus in Korea since most of it is fairly tough.  Although I enjoyed the legs, the body segments took a little too much chewing and to me was not a very tasty part.  You are supposed to dip them in sesame oil or in gochujang, although the restaurant owner was very clear about the preference of the sesame oil and kept directing us to use that instead of the gochujang. 
With the sannakji, we also ordered fresh squid and the owner gave us a complimentary, or “service,” plate of fish.  I much preferred the squid to the sannakji because I thought the texture was softer and smoother, it wasn’t quite as slimy, and had more flavor. 

What sannkji did remind me was that “food courage” is merely just getting over “food fear.”  Fear of what is squishy or strong tasting or unexpected or uncertain.  In experiencing and writing about this range of "bizarre" foods, I did realize what a funny thing food perspectives are.  In talking about foods you are not used to, the only words really available are "exotic," "bizarre," "strange," etc. all employing a note of other and a negative connotation.  Think how much harder that negative beginning makes it to try something new when you are already coming in with bad expectations. 

In teaching sexuality and literature classes, I’ve come to discover that the biggest problem with sex is that everyone has a rule for it and most think their rules are what is “true” and “right.”  Same goes for food.  Taboo food is only taboo because it goes against what you think is right and correct about food.  That doesn’t make it wrong. 

Food relativism, like sex relativism, takes thinking about preference, individuality, variations, experimentations to decide what is good to you.  I’m glad I pushed my food courage limits.  Who knows, maybe next time I’ll be able to try those chicken feet . . . maybe.
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