Street Food in Busan: You are what you eat

Some experiences happen behind the eyes, and a little downwards. I recently had an experience whose astounding visual impact was surpassed by its mouthfeel.

The day we arrived in South Korea, we were very tired. The boat from Japan had traversed a rocky sea, and I had been too frightened to sleep very well. Still, we had only one day in Busan so we decided to plow through the fatigue and hit the streets.

A friend recommended the Jagalchi area for seafood, so we headed there. We emerged from the subway onto a narrow sidewalk, the road illuminated by neon signs. The pedestrian walkway was crammed with foot stalls, each consisting of a stove and a small counter, tented over with clear plastic. We saw customers eating oysters and snails, stir fries with meat and vegetables, and soup. We found a stall that smelled good and sat down, displacing a grumpy woman’s purse.

“Move your purse,” I imagine the stall’s proprietor, a stout woman with smart eyes, said in Korean.

“Ah, but those smelly tourists have plenty of room!” The grumpy woman might have replied. We sat down in the space her purse vacated.

There were empty snail shells and oysters covering the counter. We couldn’t understand the lines and circles of the handwritten menu, so we decided to look around and point at what looked good. Before we could do that, though, the chef held up a plastic bag filled with water. Looking more closely, we could make out a mauve octopus drifting around. It’s head was about the size of my fist, and its muscular arms explored the limits of its transparent cage.

“Ok!” Andres approved. Fresh octopus, pan fried and served up with some chives, maybe. That could be delicious!

The chef put the writhing octopus on her cutting board and with a few swift chops cut it to pieces. She swiped the disassembled mollusk onto a plate, sprinkled it with sesame seeds, and placed the plate in front of us.

Immediately, a tentacle started trying to crawl off of the plate. Others waved around and knotted together. Our meal was shaking hands with itself on the plate in front of us. Maybe it was my fatigue, or the soju we had been sipping, but it seemed at that moment that the only possible plan was to pick up some chopsticks and start eating, before the whole meal escaped.

The tentacle did not want to be eaten and put up a fight. They gripped the plate with their suction cups. It was impossible to pry one off of the plate, instead it had to be slid sideways to the edge. The tentacle squirmed in my chopsticks, and in my mouth. It sucked onto my teeth and onto the inside of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth. I chewed many times to ensure the octopus wouldn’t suck onto my throat and choke me from within. A man across the stall lifted his arm and made his biceps pop. The octopus is strong, and I am strong for eating it.

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