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.