Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hitting The Culinary Wall

By now I think I've eaten a lot of what many would consider to be questionable/strange foods.  I'm willing to try new eatables when the opportunity presents itself: jellyfish (dried and chewy, tastes like what jellyfish are made of: virtually nothing), squid ink pasta (inoffensive, pleasantly salty), scorpions (tasty, with a crunch that can't be beat), grasshoppers (sweet n' crispy), silk worm larva (earthy and soft without being gooey), raw horse meat (you'd hardly know it wasn't sashimi),  fugu (tender, fresh, legitimately considered beforehand that it might be my last meal), and so on.  There are some things I won't eat, such as shark fin soup (on the menu at a restaurant in China one night) or things that are able to consciously look around the inside of my mouth before I chew.  This post concerns the latter.

A few weeks ago my friend Sean and I went out for a weekend drive to a temple with one of his Korean co-teachers, Do (pronounced like a female deer).  On the way back to our town, we were driving past a long, wide river still mostly covered with ice.  In some places where it was still presumably frozen the thickest, ice fishermen could be seen out around the holes they'd cut to the dark water below.  As we were driving we passed a very small, unassuming looking restaurant with a few signs along it advertising fish dishes.  Sean and I thought Do then asked us if we wanted to try some raw fish.

"Sure," we replied.  It sounded good, kind of like a little snack as we'd had lunch already.

"What?  Really?  I thought you wouldn't like that," Do exclaimed, surprised.

"Huh?  Why?"  We were a bit confused, as we'd eaten trout sashimi with him before, and had made clear how much we liked it.

"Well...okay then," Do said, coming to a stop in the small parking lot just off the road.

We went in and asked for a seat.  Do quickly told the adjumma (this is the common Korean word used for referring to married/old women) our order and she seemed to take it a bit hesitantly, eyeing Sean and I.  What was the big deal?  Sean sat down at the floor table and I went out of the restaurant to go to the outhouse next to it.   When I came back in and returned to the table I saw Sean eyeing a large glass bowl in the center of it with an intense, fixed gaze.  A moment later I saw that the bowl was filled with water, and fish.  Many many fish.

Thanks to phone cameras, this can now haunt my blog as well as my dreams.

"Uh...Uh... what is...why is there..." I stuttered, looking around for the frying pan, hot plate, vial of poison, whatever it was that was going to kill these things before consumption.

"I didn't know that this is what we were ordering," Sean said calmly, not breaking his gaze from the nearly mesmerizing circular movement of the shiny-bellied fish, their heads and wide, psychotic eyes pushing up against the glass. 

Neither did I.  In fact, I assumed that this was a joke Do was pulling on us and when he'd been ordering he'd really been subtly asking the adjumma to bring in a bowl of fish from the tank out back to scare the hell out of the foreigners.  In fact they were probably chuckling together right now in the other room.  I sat down and the sudden movement made the fish jump and jerk in mad panic, tearing up the surface of the water. 

Do walked back in.  Sean was still staring at the bowl.  I looked at Do waiting to see him break into a laugh.  Then the adjumma would carry in a plate of food with a grin and we'd all have a good chortle.

"You did not tell us that this was what you meant," Sean said.

Do looked taken aback.  "What?  Yes I did."

"These are live fish!"

"Yeah, I asked if you want to eat live fish."

"You said raw."

I had heard 'raw' too, but that could simply become a never ending argument.  Something was said, something was heard, the point now was that there was a large glass bowl of wriggling fish in front of us with an aesthetic piece of lettuce floating in the center, currently serving as a boat of death for a weakly flopping rebel that had beached itself on it. 

Next to the bowl was a plate of additional lettuce and a small dish of red chili sauce.  The adjumma came into the room and regarded us.  I'm assuming Sean and I still had some combination of confusion, horror and everything in between on our faces.  I think the woman interpreted this as us not knowing what to do, as she deftly picked out a feisty fish with her chopsticks.  It flipped back and forth with hideous vitality.  She dipped it into the sauce so that its head and about half its body was covered, then placed it in a piece of lettuce and wrapped it up like a neat little package before it could flop itself to bitter freedom.  She held it out to me.

"No.  No thank you," I said, first shaking my head and then throwing my hands up.  But she continued to hold it out to me, insistently.  I think Do said something like 'just take it,' and then I did.  I held the thing in my hands.  I could feel the fish flicking back and forth inside.  My mind ran a quick simulation of what it would feel like crunching down into it, and a small bit of nausea crept into my stomach.

It wasn't the ethics that was bothering me.  There's no deluding myself that every piece of seafood I've eaten has either asphyxiated, been beheaded, boiled alive, tossed into a pan, or battered and dropped into a fryer.  Fish are oblivious to the finer points of the situation, and being eaten alive, considering I would have to chew, would be no worse a fate than any other way by which it's going to end up in my stomach (or anything else's for that matter--it's a fish for crying out loud).  But it's the sensation I wouldn't be able to handle, of that slippery thing squirming wildly around in my mouth, and biting down on its roving, lidless eyes, gasping mouth and tiny beating heart.  I would gag, I knew it.  There was no way that thing was getting down my throat.

"I can't," I announced.  "No.  No way.  I'll seriously throw up."  But for the briefest of seconds I thought I was going to do it, like how an acrophobic sometimes thinks his legs are suddenly going to throw him off the edge of the cliff.  I thought I would open my mouth and my hands would just pop the bastard in there.  

Do studied me for a moment, then took the lettuce with its fishy payload from my hands and popped it into his mouth.  I think Sean and I both had an is this really happening moment, and then it passed.  Well, until Do ate another one, and then it passed, for good this time.  That was enough for him too.  He asked the adjumma to take them away and fry them, which she did.  I'll never know if she was disappointed or not in the wussy white guys, but at least they were delicious when they came back as small battered and crispy nuggets of flavor.

Since then I've sometimes regretted not eating it when I had the chance.  Granted I could go back there sometime and try again, but if I went specifically to order it I know that I'd have to keep going until the bowl was pretty much empty this time, so I really don't think I will.  It was that one time situation that passed me by and I wonder what I missed.  I can't say I've actually eaten every unusual new food that's been offered to me now, and for that I am regretful.  I hit my culinary wall, and just hope I'll get my second wind someday.

Food notes:

Meddugi (메뚜기): Korean for grasshoppers, usually served up fried.  A plate of 'em goes great with a cold beer if you can find a place that's serving.

Bondaegi (번데기): Silkworm larvae.  Can be found at street vendors all over Korea, as well as an occasional side dish in restaurants.

Basashi (ばさし): Raw horse meat, as served up in Japan.

Fugu (ふぐ): Puffer fish, often served as thin, raw slices.  There's no antidote for the lethal tetrodotoxin it carries in its organs and skin, and chefs in Japan must be licensed after a 2-3 year apprenticeship (with about a 35% passing rate), in order to prepare it.  The suspense of eating it was mostly just there the first time, however, and since then I've eaten it on plenty of occasions, particularly here in Korea where it is known as bogeo (복어) and often served in a soup called bokguk (복국).  It's preparation is also well regulated here.  Poisonings, particularly lethal, are mostly the result of amateur preparation, so if a friend asks you over for a dinner of puffer fish he's slicing up, maybe best to say you have plans...and ask him to join you.

Bingeo (빙어): The fish I didn't eat.  These are called smelts in English and grow up to 15cm long.  They're popular in Korean food, usually in dead form.

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