Ubiquitous fast food favourites like pizza and chicken aside, the world is full of eccentric delicacies that make most dining habits look positively vanilla by comparison. Depending on where you travel, you might come across edible insects, fruits that smell like an open sewer and fermented fish so potent that it has to be opened underwater. We might be more connected than ever, but that only means that more of our weird habits are being dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight.
Few videos sum up this state of affairs more effectively than an alarming clip that appeared on Facebook last week. The recording featured a chirpy Chinese vlogger attempting to eat an entire live octopus on camera. What started out as an alarming and slightly macabre eating challenge quickly descended into something much more sinister, as the panicked diner realised that the animal was fighting back. After a few tears, screams and a tug of war that seemed to go on for eternity, the vlogger managed to extract herself from the plucky creature’s arms, with a bloody welt and battered pride to remember it by.
To anyone who ends up rooting for whatever animal happens to be being hunted down during a David Attenborough documentary, the clip was an admittedly disturbing reminder that sometimes the underdog does come out on top. However, the video also served as an invaluable warning for anyone who has a habit of trying to tackle unorthodox octopus dishes. Remarkably, this warning is more pertinent than you might think.
In Korea, nights out on the town are customarily brought to a close, not with a nightcap, but with a snack that’s likely to put the heebie-jeebies into even the most world-wearie diner. San-nakji is an octopus dish that makes sushi look about as fresh as a McDonald’s filet-o-fish. Featuring sesame seeds, red chilli paste and a chaser of rice liquor, what really sets san-nakji apart are the still wriggling tentacles of a live “baby” octopus that lie dotted around the plate. These are wrapped around a chopstick, and eaten whole while they wiggle.
The dish, unsurprisingly, is controversial around the world. For many, the sight of writhing limbs leads them to understandably assume that the animal that they were attached to is still alive, suffering somewhere out of sight. The concept of octopus consciousness is in itself a matter of extensive debate, with many biologists claiming that even decapitating the animals does not “kill” them in the traditional sense.
Octopuses, unlike other animals, have as many as two thirds of their motor neurones in their limbs, meaning that they can still respond long after they have been severed from the rest of the nervous system. This has caused experts such as Peter Godfrey-Smith to claim that “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.” Small wonder that eating them at all is, for some people, morally questionable.
Our understanding, or lack thereof, over the octopus brain means that many refuse to even countenance dishes such as san-nakji, dismissing them out of hand as unnecessarily cruel. However, there is another reason why the dish is treated with morbid fascination. Aside from its debatable morality, san-nakji also has a reputation as one of the most unintentionally dangerous dishes on the planet.
The threat comes from the octopuses’ undead arms. The dense concentration of motor neurons causes the limbs to remain active long after death, writhing around and responding to external stimuli in often improbable scenarios. This poses a problem to unsuspecting diners. Every year, around six people die after eating san-nakji, due to the arms suckering themselves to the inside of their throats, causing accidental suffocation. The problem is prevalent enough for many bars to display warnings to intoxicated diners, advising them to chew carefully before attempting to swallow. Many tasters report feeling a “pull” as they attempt to gobble a tentacle.
Given the risks involved, dining on san-nakji is not for the faint of heart. However, for anyone willing to take the plunge, there are a few pieces of advice available for intrepid eaters. Korean head chef Kim Sang Jin, for instance, says that chefs should “grab the octopus by the head and squeeze the tentacles downwards” to remove the mucus, because “it’s not that great to eat.” He also suggests cutting the arms into small pieces, because, "If you try to eat big pieces it can get caught in your throat and that's when you have an accident and die." Given the stakes involved, this advice seems to be particularly sage.
While it’s unclear whether the Chinese vlogger was aware of the potentially deadly consequences of eating octopus arms, the evidence seems to suggest that she had bitten off more than she could chew in more ways than one. It might have made for an unintentionally hilarious video, but maybe her inability to eat the animal was a blessing in disguise. Had she managed to get a tentacle into her mouth, the clip could have taken a seriously dark and unexpected turn.