Sannakji: Is Eating Live Octopus Cruel?

Sannakji, a dish of live octopus, is one of Korea’s most talked about dishes. But is it also cruel? 

A few months back a group of friends and I made a visit to Noryangjin fish market, Seoul’s most famous seafood wholesale market. Our mission? To experience sannakji: a small live octopus cut into smaller pieces and eaten while the tentacles are still moving. It was to be a test of our commitment to Korean culture and our willingness to choke back something that is instantaneously repulsive to the western palate.

As it turned out, while most of us had the willies watching our  lunch wiggling around on the plate, it wasn’t that bad. Sure it moves around even after thorough chewing, and the tentacles do their best to latch onto the inside of your mouth, but the general consensus is that the yuck factor is much worse than the actual experience. The octopus has very little taste, but surprisingly, a much nicer texture than when cooked. The spicy gochu pepper sauce that comes with it is quite nice, and the addition of sesame seed is a welcome one.

The cruelty of this dish is hotly debated. The tentacles themselves are not, technically speaking, alive. The post-cutting movement is essentially the twitching of nerves reacting to their sudden loss of command from the octopus’ brain. Although it will continue, quite astoundingly, for about 20-30 minutes after it has been cut up, there is no possibility that the tentacles are suffering as they’re chewed up. Disturbing side note: the tentacles do, however, react in a rather pissed off manner to being doused in spicy sauce). But while the tentacles are nothing more than twitching nerves, the head of the octopus is often left to stare at you while you consume it (one of the braver members of the group went ahead and ate the head too).

According to scientists, octopuses are much more intelligent than most people are aware. In an article from Orion magazine, writer Sy Montgomery details his meeting with an octopus named Athena. As it turns out, an octopus is able to identify and remember people, even after quite a bit of time has passed. Furthermore, they have exhibited unique personality traits, and even basic problem-solving skills.

Then again I suppose that the intelligence of a creature shouldn’t have much bearing on whether or not it should be permitted to suffer. I would consider myself an avid animal lover. I have no issue with fishing, yet Japanese Ikizukuri makes me uncomfortable. I’ll happily indulge in steak, yet I would be very disturbed if I were eating a cow that was staring back at me with their big, beautiful brown eyes. It’s not food having a face that bothers me, it’s food that may be considering its fate while I’m dining on it. I can’t help but be reminded of the Dish of the Day bit from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams. In this particular piece of brilliant writing, a man name Arthur has a brief discussion with a talking cow who wholeheartedly desires for nothing more than to be eaten, and even goes so far as to point out some of the most delicious parts of his body (see Dish of the Day here). The passage certainly crossed my mind as I ate sannakji.

Is sannakji cruelty? Personally, I’d feel better if the head of the octopus was promptly killed afterward. It would take nothing from the dish which doesn’t typically feature the head. At least that way there is nothing potentially panicking on your plate.

Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments below, and enjoy this video of Beth’s sexiest moment ever.

19 Responses to “Sannakji: Is Eating Live Octopus Cruel?”
  1. Erwin says:

    An avid animal lover? You must have a very flexible interpretation of this term. Someone who loves animals wouldn’t be chomping down a live octopus, but instead condemn such cruelty.

    • Thanks for commenting. One of the reasons I wrote the post was to see what other people had to say about the issue. As I mentioned in the post, what I ate was the tentacles, which were moving, but not “alive” as they had been removed from the octopus. I’ve mentioned I have some reservations about the practice, and it’s the conscious head that I think makes the difference. I believe killing to eat is fine, but there are humane and inhumane ways to do so. It was a cultural experience, but not one I plan on repeating.

      • Becca says:

        The octopus was alive when the tentacles were cut off.
        Compare it to it to a cow.
        Its like have the cow alive and cutting off its legs and then eating it while it watched you are no “animal lover” i heard of this and didnt think ” i wanna try it” no i said ” thats horrible.

    • He said “avid animal lover” not gigantic pussy.

    • Aaron says:

      What Erwin said!!!!

  2. Kathrine Valdez says:

    very interesting topic.
    I guess some humans are unconsciously sadistic…

  3. Caitlin says:

    I personally don’t feel that it makes a difference whether or not the animal is technically “alive” while you are chewing on it…it’s still pretty cruel.

    In my opinion, the more intelligent an animal is, the more likely the animal is to be aware of it’s own suffering and to feel true, complex pain and fear…

    The more likely an animal is to experience complex pain and fear, the more care we should take to ensure that their slaughter is as quick as possible. Cutting off each individual tentacle while the animal is still living and experiencing the horror and shock of being severed alive is just…sadistic. It’s all to preserve the gimmick of serving still writhing tentacles to gluttonous thrill-seeking customers…

    You can still be a foody while still retaining some sort of respect for the animal that gave its life for your meal. There is something very hedonistic and flat out wrong about this “delicacy”…

    I appreciate that you opened this up for discussion though.

    • The tentacles are usually not cut off while the tentacles are alive. In the videos that I have seen, they are killed almost instantly by having their heads split open and their brains removed. They die as fast as a cow at a humane slaughterhouse. There are some amateur ones that are more cruel, though.

      • indiafea says:

        There are numerous sources that discuss not only the intelligence of octopodes but that each of their arms has its own “brain”. Even after the arms are cut off they can act independently. Knowing this, the sadistic nature of this “cuisine” is even more cruel.

  4. We eat pigs, which are the smartest domestic animals (even smarter than dogs). So I don’t see how sannakji would be any more cruel than eating pork, unless it was the kind where you kept the octopus alive when being hacked into pieces (which most of the time it’s not; the brains are swiftly removed prior to hacking).

    For a truly cruel dish, see ortolan bunting and live monkey brains (though neither are practised much anymore).

  5. Stacey says:

    I couldn’t have said it better Caitlin. This “delicacy” is horrifying. All the positive Yelp reviews on the dish are mortifying and disgusting (especially when people are OK to eat at these places where they acknowledge the visible filth.)

  6. Suzanne says:

    You’re eating an animal that that can recognize one person from another, play with toys, and even take a liking to an individual human being. An animal that has an estimated 130 million more neurons in its brain than a human being, where every one of it’s tentacles can feel and taste 10X stronger than a human being. Imagine how painful it must be for the poor animal. I hope you feel guilty, because I would.

  7. snow says:

    It is really Humanity away to eat such animals alive!
    This is cruel.. I hate this behavior.

  8. says:

    Disgusting and cruel. Being human became a shameful thing because that kind of sadist people. May God have mercy on your sinful souls

  9. Kristine says:

    I think the least we can do is be kind to the creature while it’s alive and then kill it as painlessly as possible before eating it. If the creature is moving the life force is still in effect. Wait for it to stop moving or cook it up, which would stop the tentacles from moving. It’s dangerous anyway and people have had the pieces stuck in their throat. Are people so out of patience that they have to eat an animal before all it’s movements subside? The reason it’s moving is cause it was just separated from the rest of the body.

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