Made famous in a rather disturbing scene of Oldboy, one of the most famous movies to have come out of Korea, live octopus is often a considered a must-try on any trip to the peninsula. Octopus tentacles, chopped and seasoned, are served still squirming alongside a variety of dipping sauces. If you’re able to pry them off the plate and get them in your mouth, you’re certain to experience a most unusual taste sensation. Just remember to chew, as there have been cases – about six a year – in which the octopus has used its powerful suckers to grasp onto the diner’s esophagus, thus choking them to death. Talk about dangerous dining.
The UK has its black pudding, Puerto Rico enjoys morcilla, and South Korea loves its sundae. The country’s version of blood sausage is made by stuffing pig intestines with a concoction of blood, rice, green onions, pork and noodles, and then steaming it. A popular street food, the dish is usually served alongside steamed liver, stomach, and other organ meat, or in a soup called sundaeguk.
Like many of Korea’s cuisines, each region of the country prepares the dish differently, and incorporates various ingredients. Though the recipes may differ, all sundae is chewy on the outside and soft and flavorful on the inside, making for an interesting mixture of textures and flavors.
Dalkbal, or chicken feet, have long been a staple in many world cuisines, including those of Hong Kong, Peru, Kenya, and even the American South. Likewise, the specialty is also widely consumed in South Korea, where the feet are steamed, grilled, boiled, or fried and drowned in a thick, fiery sauce made of gochujang and sesame. Best enjoyed in a pochangmacha (tent bar) with a cold bottle of soju, chewy, cartilaginous dalkbal makes for an excellent drinking food and is said to work wonders for the skin.
Seonji Haejangguk (선지해장국)
After a long night out on the town, Koreans often cure their hangovers by slurping down a hot bowl of haejangguk (literally, ‘hangover soup’). Seonji haejangguk is without a doubt the most unusual variety, featuring congealed ox blood as its primary ingredient. The nearly-dried blood floats in spongy chunks atop a steamy broth. While the flavors aren’t all that bad, the texture is certainly one that takes some getting used to.
A type of jeotgal (salted fermented seafood), gejang is made by marinating fresh crabs either in ganjang (soy sauce) or in a chili pepper powder-based sauce and is eaten raw. Traditionally, a salty soy sauce brine was used as a method of preserving the crabs for an extended period of time. Although this preservation technique is no longer necessary thanks to today’s modern conveniences, the dish is still beloved for its taste, and even has an entire street dedicated to it in the Sinsa-dong neighborhood of Seoul.
In Korea, it’s widely believed that no part of a pig should go to waste – even its skin. So, it’s no surprise that dwaejikkeobjil is on offer at many of the country’s barbecue restaurants. Usually grilled, the caramelized pork skin is a bit rubbery in texture but its rich, nutty flavors make it a delightful drinking food. As an added bonus, its collagen content is said to make the skin smoother and suppler.
Beondegi, or roasted silkworm pupae, is sure to awaken your senses with its unmistakable aroma and unforgettable taste profile: a roasty, juicy, buggy flavor combination that lingers long after you’re done eating. The snack is a common street food popular among children (most of whom are unaware of what they’re actually eating) and is also sold canned, stewed in juices. Although some would say beondegi is an acquired taste, its health benefits are undeniable; science has shown that these little guys are a high-quality, low-fat protein that can boost your energy.
As a peninsula, South Korea offers a wide assortment of seafood. But none is more unusual than the gaebul, a species of marine worm whose phallic appearance has earned it its nickname of ‘penis fish’. Most often, live gaebul is cut into small pieces and is served raw, still wriggling. Served with sesame oil, the flavors of gaebul are similar to those of clams. The main difference, however, is that it is not uncommon to be sprayed with salt water while chewing on it. Furthermore, this interesting creature is enjoyed by men as an aphrodisiac. Go figure.
Hongeo, or fermented skate, is perhaps one of Korea’s most bizarre foods, not to mention one of the strongest smelling in the entire world – and for a rather revolting reason. Skates, which resemble rays, don’t urinate like most other fish. Rather, they pass uric acid through their skin. When it is fermented, the uric acid breaks down into a compound that stinks like ammonia. The stench is so strong that diners are recommended to inhale through their mouth and exhale through their nose to reduce exposure to the smell.
To the dismay of animal lovers and activists around the world, boshintang, or dog meat soup, is still eaten in South Korea, most often by old men for ‘stamina’. That said, the dish is not commonly consumed. In fact, most Koreans are appalled by the fact that selling dog meat is still legal, especially considering the abusive treatment carried out in dog farms. With many Koreans beginning to rescue dogs from these farms and animal rights groups gaining traction, it’s predicted that dog meat consumption will be outlawed in Korea sooner than later.