When the sannakji hit the table at Seon Soo Chon restaurant, I had to stare at the gray, squirming dish for a minute to take in what was happening. A small octopus from a nearby tank had just been taken out of the water and hacked up, alive, and served to us with some sesame seeds sprinkled on top.
It's a pretty fucked-up scenario when you think about the process, but so is the way most animals get slaughtered in the factory farming industry—we just eat them later.
I wasn't in Seoul to debate the ethics of eating live octopus, though. I wanted to witness the seemingly commonplace Korean cultural phenomenon.
There was a Korean baseball game on TV. Before us, the sannakji looked like a moving mound of diced blob fish. The raw, dead octopus wriggled around posthumously in the same way a chicken runs around with its head cut off.
After watching my friends dip their sannakji bites into sesame oil, I tried to follow suit but struggled to grab pieces of the slimy seafood with the slender, metal chopsticks. I struggled so hard that my friend ended up getting me some tongs to use instead.
I finally, awkwardly, got the first bite into my mouth. It tasted exactly like you'd think it would, like very fresh octopus with very delicious sesame oil. One of the tentacles gently sucked onto my cheek. Sometimes the zombie tentacles grip onto your chopstick.
It didn't seem like a luxurious or special-occasion dish. We got our plate for the equivalent of about $11 USD and it came with some drinks. I asked my friend Thai Hyun Chung when Koreans normally eat live octopus.
"You eat it when you want to drink soju," he said.
We alternated between finagling pieces of sannakji and taking shots of soju. Seon Soo Chon's owner, Won Dong Kim, shows us some of the octopus that have yet to meet their unpleasant fate.
I can't stop picking at the sannakji. It's chewy and salty, a perfect match for the soju. The accompanying carrots, cucumbers, ginger, and pickled turnip offer some satisfying crunch.
After drinking and snacking for a while, Won gifted us with a giant bowl of tteokbokki, basically the opposite of freshly chopped squid.
It's a vat of gochujang sauce, tubular rice cakes, and thin fish cakes. The bowl's brim is lined with fried goodies like onion rings to dip into the thick, spicy broth. We add in some ramyeon and let them cook.
Between the soju drinking games and feast, I forgot about the fallen octopus. When we left, the few pieces remaining were completely motionless.