As you wind your way through Seoul, the smells and sites of food are everywhere. From fine dining to food carts, Korea has dining opportunities, traditional and international alike.
Korean food is a constantly evolving cuisine. Traditionally, meals were served with many plates of banchan (side dishes.) Diets were based upon meat, rice and vegetables. Dishes varied by province. Food was about balance with hot and cold, sweet and salty, spicy and mild tastes to give harmony.
But push aside the kimchi, gimpap, and galbi, because we are going to talk about another side of Korean cuisine. Korea is also known to eat some wild, unique and extreme/strange foods!
For our first strange food experience, a group of brave souls accompanied me to Noryangin Fish Market in search of three unusual and fishy ‘Korean Eats.’ Noryangin fish market is a wholesale and retail fish market as well as an auction house. It is located in the Noryangjin-dong Neighborhood in Dongjak-gu just south of the Han River. The Noryangin station on Metro Line one is right near the market. Take Exit 1 and walk under the bridge to find it. The market is open 24 hours a day!
The fish is so fresh that, when you enter the building, there is barely any seafood odor. Many of the fish are still alive! It is like a delicious aquarium. The market is bustling with an estimated 30,000 visitors daily, and 40,000 employees.
As you walk up and down the rows, hundreds of varieties of fish surround you. Merchants’ shouts offer to show and sell you their finest catch! We browsed through the fish in search of my desired strange seafood dishes:
Live Octopus – Sannakji (산낙지)
Fermented Stingray – Hongeo (홍어)
Live Spoon Worm-Gaebul
None of these items were hard to find. We soon discovered a merchant who carried all three. The shop owner showed us the octopus, letting its long legs dangle from her glove. After this we moved onto the spoon worm. Spoon worm is one of the strangest looking animals I have ever seen. It looks like a very large earthworm that swims. As the merchant took the spoon worm out of the aquarium, water squirted from its insides. Finally we chose some fermented stingray and a few less unique pieces of seafood. The fermented stingray had no initial odor. It was a site to see, as the animal was filleted but still left with it’s stinger in tact.
Once you make your purchase at the market, merchants will fillet and prepare the seafood for you. From there you can choose from many of their restaurants located upstairs. The restaurants will prepare the food however you like for a small additional fee.
Live Octopus – Nakji (낙지)
I couldn’t believe my eyes as this dish was brought to the table. The octopus was cut into pieces, but the legs continued to rapidly move on the plate. It takes a very skilled chopstick user to even be able to pick up a piece. When I finally got a hold of one of the wiggling legs, I attempted to place it in my mouth. The suctions on the leg instantly stuck to my lips. I pried it off and did get it in my mouth. A slimy, chewy and mild tasting animal fell onto my taste buds. It took me about a minute to chew the leg enough to swallow it. If you can get past the texture, and your dinner literally crawling off your plate, octopus isn’t so bad.
It is important to be careful when eating live octopus. It is required to thoroughly chew your food because the suctions on the octopus are still active when consuming it. Some Koreans eat small live octopus whole. One has to be cautious, however. If the animal is too large or not chewed enough, the legs can get stuck in your windpipe and suffocate you. Yikes! We luckily all made it out alive. I have to say, however, that as I write this, I get the eerie feeling that something is still slithering in my throat…
Raw Spoon Worm-Gaebul (개불)
Live spoon worm or urechis unicinctus is just as strange as strange gets when it comes to appearance. The fish is commonly referred to as the fat innkeeper worm or penis fish. I prefer my husband’s description as, “The weird alien swimming worm fish.” Korea is one of the only places in the world that eats raw spoon worm, with the exception of selected parts of Japan.
When being served Gaebul, the worm was also cut into pieces. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the taste of this fish. It was the mildest of our three dishes, having a similar taste to raw oysters with a chewy (instead of slimy) texture.
Fermented Skate fish – Hongeo (홍어)
Fermented stingray or skate has been referred to as “the smelliest delicacy in the world.” Interestingly, one third of all foods are fermented. Koreans have truly embraced the fermenting process and invented hundreds of fermented dishes. Hongeo easily wins the title of the strangest fermented Korean food.
It is said that Hongeo came to existence by accident, when a group of pirates were traveling from Heuksan Island. They carried a variety of fish home with them, which all spoiled. There was one exception. The stingray fermented instead of spoiling. The pirates enjoyed the tangy taste of this fish and brought it back to the mainland. From that, this accidental dish would be enjoyed for decades to come. Argh!
The skate fish is not technically a stingray. It is from the stark family, but very similar in appearance to a small stingray. For this reason it is commonly misnamed.
Hongeo is flat and comprised completely of cartilage. Instead of urinating the fish passes a uric acid through its skin. Through this process ammonia enters the skin causing good bacteria to grow which prevents the fish from rotting. The ammonia produces probiotics. It is said there are 100 times more probiotics in skate fish than in yogurt. So enjoy – this ‘strange eat’ is good for you!
The ammonia gives off a strong smell and extremely pungent experience. One must acquire a taste for eating skate fish. You may not like it if you eat it once, but don’t worry. After ten times, you’ll begin to crave it!
It is common to eat skate fish with boiled pork belly and kimchi in a lettuce wrap. I ate the fish in this fashion. Initially I did not notice an overwhelming smell. I was instructed to place the entire wrap in my mouth, the traditional way to eat the fish. I did as I was told. I began to chew. The fish was extremely chewy, but I found it had little taste. It was when I swallowed, that I was hit with an overwhelming chemical taste. My nasal passages were cleared and I almost fell backwards with shock. Wow! This for sure was a very strange eating experience. I advise only the very brave and strong-stomached to try Hongeo.