One Word – Vile!
Even for westerners with eclectic palates who enjoy flitting between the spicy and tantalizing subtleties of Thai, Indian, Mexican and Chinese food, a Korean specialty can chuck a spanner in the works. Of course, most of our knowledge of such cuisines has been doctored and what comprises their menu has been selected to appeal to our tastes. Chinese food in the UK is nearly always Cantonese or Peking and the enormous silk worm cocoon sautéed with scorpion, a cuisine typical of the Gobi region of China, is not likely to appear on the menu of your local takeaway. I’ve never seen the boiled duck embryo, khai khao, cooked alive and served with the shell intact, in my local Thai restaurant and some of the food I ate in India I doubt appears on any menu outside the country itself.
Korea has a number of foods which cause a foreigner, especially those accustomed to European traditions, to stifle a retch. Dog meat is perhaps the most infamous and is likely to shock us with as much revulsion as Koreans find at the thought of eating rabbit. And if a westerner gags at the idea of sushi they are likely to do far worse if faced with sashimi (known in Korea as ‘hoe’ – 회) against which sushi is positively tame. Anything which crawls, swims, floats, buries itself in the mud or simply hangs about on rocks, is fair game for the sashimi platter where it is usually eaten raw. If raw fish isn’t enough to empty your stomach, there is variety of raw meats, the tamest of which is thinly sliced beef steak but venturing into the Klingon domain are raw tripe and liver. However, a few cooked meats, intestine and boiled lung, are likely to repulse a healthy hunger after which steamed silkworm cocoon or pan-fried grasshopper seem almost civilised.
Over the New Year, I ate at two traditional seafood restaurants. The first specialised in a particular kind of clam and the entire menu, apart from side dishes, focused on this local delicacy. I wasn’t too happy when the hors d’oeuvre arrived; an unceremonious bowl of clams which had been warmed rather than cooked, and hence the shells required prizing open with a tool I’m sure I’ve seen in an electricians tool-bag. Have you ever been dumped on by a passing pigeon? Once prized open, the clams’ innards were just that; a messy splurge of white and brown pudding that dripped onto the paper table-cloth like diarrhoea. I silently cursed my Korean friend and prepared to stifle the retch reflex that was sure to follow but surprisingly, they were very delicious. The rest of the meal contained clams in one form or another – in pancakes, as sweet and sour, skewered, in a soup, and in the sauce of a bibimbap.
My evening delight was in an enchanting traditional restaurant in a small outhouse. Here I was served the entire gamut of food at which the European usually cringes. Apart from insects and dog, there was a selection of all the nautical nasties, sea squirt – which resembles an acned, bulbous boil (멍게), ‘dog dick’ (개불 – Urechis unicinctus) – a slimy type of spoon worm which has no English name, a type of shellfish with the texture of slightly meaty, raw cauliflower, raw squid, the unpleasant orphaned testicle thing known as mideodek (미더덕 – styela clava) which many Koreans hate. Other delicacies, less shocking, included raw oyster and I even managed some raw sliced beef. Along with a fine spread of kimchies and as a veteran of Korean food, I managed to eat with apparent pleasure.
Then I picked up what looked like raw tuna, which I actually like, and slipped it onto my tongue. I hadn’t even shut my mouth when there was a sensation of something very unpleasant. ‘Can you smell it?’ my friend asked. ‘Ugh,’ I managed to mutter without moving my teeth for fear of stirring whatever was on my tongue. I wanted to swallow it but it had bones, cartilaginous bones which demanded chomping and I could smell what seemed like neat ammonia invading my nasal passage. ‘Urgh!’ I gagged again. I couldn’t spit it out, that really isn’t an option with Koreans and though I scanned the ‘banquet’ fom some friendly food that might speed it into my stomach, everything was both raw and slimy. It was truly like a mouthful of smelling salts and my eyes were beginning to water. ‘Ugh, ugh! ‘I gagged as I furtively eyed the table from the dish of raw oyster on one plate, the messy sea squirt on another to the slivers of sliced dog dick. In the end I was rescued by a bowl of seaweed soup from which I slurped before swallowing the entire slice of fish, unchomped cartilage as well.
I’ve eaten dried ray fish in sauce and really enjoyed it but fresh (홍어) and uncooked it is the most revolting thing I’ve ever eaten; worse than all the crud of the sea, the insects, dog and probably worse than boiled lung – which I don’t ever intend eating! If you want to eat something truly awful, something that makes even live octopus tame, this is your baby.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.