It’s a Saturday night in Seoul, and seafood lovers are prowling the stalls of the bustling, brightly lit Noryangjin Fish Market looking for dinner. Some might settle on sannakji, a traditional Korean dish, and take a bag of small, fresh octopus to the restaurants upstairs. As they wait for the chefs to slice up their meal, they sip soju, a Korean liquor made from distilled rice, wheat, or barley that pairs particularly well with raw seafood.
When the dish arrives, the severed octopus tentacles wriggle among crunchy sides of cucumbers, carrots, and pickled turnips. The diners deftly retrieve the moving meal with chopsticks, dip the pieces in sesame oil, and pop them into their mouths. The taste is chewy, salty, and fresh.
Sannakji appears on many menus as a meal or late-night snack in Korea. But restaurants abroad have been criticized for serving it. In the United States, for instance, animal rights activists argue that the still-moving octopus parts must be alive, making for a slow, painful death.
Whether or not the octopus is still alive is a matter of debate, which is also tied to our evolving understanding of octopus consciousness. Among humans, death occurs when heart, breathing, or brain functions cease. No one would suspect an amputated hand of being alive and feeling pain. These parameters, however, don’t exactly apply to the unique body and mind of an octopus. Their nervous systems are decentralized, for one: The majority of their neurons reside not in their brains, but in their tentacles. As Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, writes, “It is not clear where the brain itself begins and ends. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain and nervous system.”
So although the octopus is technically dead after decapitation, some argue that its neuron-packed tentacles are still alive. They still respond to stimuli, recoiling from touch or suctioning to chopsticks. Some tasters feel a tight pull when the tentacles suction to their mouth or throat. So should you decide to eat sannakji, remember to swallow quickly.
Need to Know
Sannakji is served throughout South Korea, as well as in Koreatowns in cities around the world. It pairs especially well with a glass or two of soju. The dish also goes by the slang of just "nakji." The Korean word for "four" is "sa," leading to some confusion.
Where to Try It
Noryangjin Fish Market13-6 Noryangjin-dong, Dongjak-gu, Seoul, South Korea
A 24-hour treasure trove of seafood, the market is located off the Noryangjin station on the Seoul subway. In addition to a sprawling selection of seafood stalls, the upper floors feature restaurants that will cook your purchases for you.
A plate of sannakji at this Korean restaurant in Queens, New York, costs about $30.