When I went to Korea this year, one of things I insisted on eating was sannakji (산낙지, live octopus). I’d never had it. Years and years ago, I went with my family to a seaside restaurant on the Korean coast and I remember people eating sannakji all around us. I wanted to try it, but we ended up not ordering it because my little cousins (who by the way are not so little anymore and have somehow graduated from college) were going through a phase where they refused to eat anything except spam. Instead, we ate fish jigae (stew) and had the restaurant fry up some spam for the kids (if you can believe it, my aunt always carried a can in her purse).
So this time in Korea, as an adult who could set her own agenda and eat whatever she pleased, I told Joo Hyun and Soo Hyun we had to go eat sannakji. I’m pretty sure they weren’t too excited. Not because it’s weird, but because live octopus is one of those gimmicky foods Americans want to eat when they visit Korea. (It’s like, “Yeah, I’m in the Korea, let’s go eat something bizarre… LIVE OCTOPUS!!!”) Well, unfortunately for them, I am American, so off we went one night in search of sannakji. David oddly insisted on staying in at the hotel.
The girls told me sannakji is usually given as “service” (Korean for any free complimentary dish) at any Japanese sushi/sashimi restaurant, but I put my foot down. I was in Korea, I wanted to eat sannakji at a Korean restaurant! The first Korean seafood restaurant Joo Hyun thought of was unfortunately closed. We went around the corner and tried another restaurant. It was open, but the host said the sannakji wasn’t fresh. We walked out the door. Of course we could have gone to one of the many divey Korean drinking places for sannakji, but the girls wanted to take me somewhere “nice.” At this point though, I started to feel bad and suggested we go anywhere close-by to eat. Joo Hyun said there was a popular raw crab (게장, gejang) restaurant nearby called Pro Soy Crab (프로간장게장, Pro Ganjang Gejang), and not wanting to be difficult, I gave in.
Fortunately though, the octopus gods were with me that night because when we got to the restaurant, the waitress said they had sannakji and it was indeed fresh. Woot!
In fact, the chopped Sannakj (KR ₩25,000/US $21.24) was so fresh, one of the tentacles was strong enough to move a slice of pepper around the plate. It was a strong little sucker. Quite literally. When eating live octopus, each piece is dipped in sesame oil prior to consumption. This is done for two reasons. The first is obviously for taste, but the second is to oil up the tentacle so it won’t be able to attach to the insides of your mouth or throat with its suckers. As I was eating the sannakji, the tentacles were fighting the inevitable by holding onto the inner membranes of my cheeks. It wasn’t too strong of a pull, but it was definitely palpable. As for taste, it was incredibly fresh and had a nice snappy texture. You can’t have fresher octopus than this unless you caught an octopus in the ocean and took a bite.
After the octopus, we moved onto the soy sauce crabs the restaurant is famous for and has been selling since it opened in 1980. A small order of Ganjang Gejang (KR ₩50,000/US $42.48), raw crabs marinated in garlicky soy sauce, consisted of two large crabs cut in half, bursting with roe. The crabs were meaty, salty, and slightly sweet from the marinade, but most importantly, very fresh. I knew my fingers would reek for hours by the time I was through, but I got right in there tearing up the crab, sucking out the squishy meat, and mixing my rice in the top shells so none of roe in the pointy corners got wasted. (After my hands got good and stinky, we noticed some people had plastic gloves on while they were eating. It turns out the restaurant offers gloves to those who ask. Oh well, I rather lick my bare fingers than plastic anyway.) Looking back, it was my favorite meal in Seoul. My only regret is not ordering more.
The novelty of eating live octopus has worn off, but I’d gladly go back to Pro Soy Crab for the sannakji and the meaty soy sauce crabs. But for those that still need a gimmick, check out the crazy modern architecture of the building housing the restaurant. It’s like going to the Modern Museum of Soy Sauce Crab. Don’t deny it, I know you want to go.