(On Gastronomical Thrill-Seeking)
By Kimberly Kosta
If a picture is worth a thousand words than a bite is worth a thousand WORLDS. I still haven’t found a cuisine I don’t like, and the great thing is every time I eat a dish from somewhere I’ve been, memories bloom with every mouthful, taking me back to far away places. Pad Thai from Thailand, bibimbap from South Korea, bangers and mash from the UK…
But sometimes I need to get a little adventurous. Those are the times where once is enough a la: I-swallowed-the-shot, got-the-picture, won-the-t-shirt variety. Let’s start with live octopus in Korea. This is usually served with makkoli a Korean rice spirit, and if the name upsets you don’t worry – the octopus is definitely dead. The hard part isn’t eating the spasming little bits with the suckers still pulsating, nor is it chewing and swallowing (cautiously! – apparently the suckers can latch on to your throat)! The hard part is actually watching the server kill it. The first time I saw it I was in shock – she started from the bottom of the tentacles and slowly moved her way up, snip-snip-snip, tapping it on the head to keep it conscious, (presumably to get the bits to squirm more)? I don’t know. But I didn’t order it, it was happening before I knew it, and I didn’t feel comfortable making a protest about how things are done elsewhere. And yes, it still haunts me. But there it was, a dozen little squirming octo-parts in front of me, and I decided to rise to the occasion. I had to count to three.
One, two…two-and-a-half…Oh WOW. I felt like I was eating salty bubble gum. Bubble gum that was trying to chew me back. I chomp and nosh and chew, and down it goes without a problem. I gave thanks to the little guy and vowed to commemorate him somehow. Octo-Petey, I salute you! (Seriously though, I wouldn’t order it on purpose. It just tended to show up at multiple course meals amid the chaos that is makkoli. Usually the kill was a clean snip to the neck).
Other foods weren’t as easy to get down. Once, after returning to the table my dinner companions encouraged me to try a roasted nut. Hmm, I thought right as I put it in my mouth. Why does this nut have legs? OH DEAR GOD! I had unwittingly just eaten beondegi! But I refused to spit it out. Beondegi is Korean silk worm larvae, and is often found stewing in the pots of street vendors and at festivals and announces its presence to your olfactory senses loooong before you see it. But before you turn into Judgey McJudger Pants, know that this little silk worm baby packs a lot of protein in it, and during times of scarcity it was probably a godsend. To my credit, I kept it down.
Another ‘food’ that tried to come back up was the fish eye shot. We were all enjoying some Jam-ji – raw tuna, at this bangin’ local place when my friend recommended we try a fish eye shot. “Say what?” Was just about everyone’s reaction. She explained it was where the uneaten eye of the tuna they serve is plopped into a shot of soju (Korean vodka). Fish eye shot. Duh. We got the shot, but instead of the eye we got its fluid instead. Probably a good thing since it meant we wouldn’t have to pop it in our mouths ourselves. The first shot went down fine. The second, which was pinker and stronger (and FISHIER) got spit right back into the glass before I even swallowed. Well, MINE ended up there. My third friend, however, managed to actually swallow it down, and…well you remember that volcano experiment where you mix the baking soda and vinegar? Imagine a reaction of those proportions in her stomach and, BLARGGG! All over the floor it went. The room was so busy making merry that no one even noticed and she cleaned it up without much fuss. We teased her about it forever, though.
I went quite a while without doing anything gastronomically daring, but then fast-forward to the Philippines, where a guy was selling balut (fertilized, boiled, chicken eggs) and thought: I got this. One of my friends at the time had to walk away, although the truth is I was lucky: The one I bought wasn’t very developed. I bit into it and there was an outline of a beak, a wing, and a foot. But mostly it was just like a hard-boiled egg. If you look it up on the internet, you’ll see why I got lucky that day.
If there’s one thing I know about having been abroad is that it’s the perfect time to step outside oneself and shake things up. To put another way: You can always watch your favorite rom-coms , but sometimes you just want to see an action-adventure movie, or try a convoluted thriller. It’s the same with food: Sometimes I want the Spielberg culinary experience where my seafood fights back, and sometimes I want the David Lynch experience, where I don’t know WHAT is going on.
Eating the same food abroad as you would at home is fine and dandy for some folks, but for me it would be like living Dorothy’s meat and potatoes Kansas as opposed to experiencing OZ’s technicolor candy store. Even if it means occasionally trying not to yak on the yellow brick road.