A continuation of Part 1… (Prepare yourselves, queasy readers.)
Let me pick up where I left off — dinnertime on Friday. There’s a lot to say about this meal, so I’m going to stick to Friday evening in this post. I’ll start off Part 3 with Saturday morning.
As I mentioned, we headed to Songjeong Beach, where we would spend the night. Songjeong is supposed to be one of the less crowded beaches of Busan, and, after witnessing all the craziness of Haeundae, that was something I was definitely looking forward to. When we arrived, the beach was still relatively full, particularly with families, but it was nothing compared to the crowds at Haeundae. We noticed the “camping section” of the beach right away; there were a multitude of large tents and seating areas set up on the sand. Seeing the other campers gave me an immediate sense of relief and comfort — yes, we could camp on this beach, and there would be lots of other beach camping families nearby.
Our next thought was dinner, so we set out to find some good seafood — we were in Busan, the coastal city of Korea, after all. Almost every restaurant along the beach specialized in seafood, so we picked one that had some happy-looking people eating inside. As we perused the tank of still-living sea creatures, the waitress came outside and asked us what we wanted to eat. We, of course, had no idea, so we got a menu with the intention of deciphering it. Neither of us have an extensive seafood vocabulary, so the friendly waitress pointed at things in the tank to describe the various menu items. Will likes octopus (which she took out of the tank to show us, and then let him hold), so we got the set that included the octopus dish (낚지). I’m not a big fan of octopus in general, but since we were in Busan, I thought I would give it a go.
The waitress was also very surprised that we were not Korean (I guess our backpacks didn’t give us away?), which she realized after we started talking (practice makes perfect?). She exclaimed at how Korean we look, and said that Will looks just like an Korean Olympic swimmer — I’m guessing it’s not Park Tae-Hwan (he’s the famous one – just Google “Korean Olympic swimmer”), because I don’t see a resemblance, but maybe that’s just me. Who knows. Anyway, she was great.
We grabbed a table outside and enjoyed the weather while waiting for our food. Soon enough, the waitress was walking towards us with a plate of octopus in her hand, and…..it was still moving.
I can’t describe the shock and blitz of fear than went through my head when I saw the moving octopus. My first thought was, “Oh my god,” followed by, “Ohhhh no,” then, “There is no way I’m eating that,” in what seemed like slow motion as the pieces of octopus continued to writhe. The happy-go-lucky smile on our waitress-friend’s face made it all the worse. She pointed at the salt and sesame oil dipping sauce she had brought out, and said that we should eat the octopus with that. I think she enjoyed teaching us the right way to eat fresh seafood in Korea. We just didn’t realize it would be quite this fresh.
Will and I sat there gaping at it for a good minute, and at some point, I realized my hands had moved to cover my mouth (manners by instinct, or pure terror?). As I babbled on about how I didn’t think I could eat it — there’s nothing like moving octopus to kill your appetite — Will somewhat calmly convinced me that we had to try it. “Okay, okay, I like to try new things,” I thought. “I am an adventurous eater.”
Soon our waitress was back with the second main dish, which was 멍게, or sea pineapple (I actually learned this much later, after our trip concluded. At the time neither of us had any idea whatsoever.). This looked much more palatable to me; mostly, I was just happy it wasn’t moving. This dish, she told us, tasted best with the gochujang (spicy and kind of sweet red pepper sauce).
I can’t quite remember which one I tried first, but try both I did, and we proceeded to make as large a dent into both dishes as we considered possible (about half of each). It wasn’t easy, but the image of our waitress’s beaming smile kept me going. Besides, now I had a good answer for, “What’s the weirdest/craziest thing you ever ate?” (My previous answer was jellyfish, which my grandfather tricked me into trying when I was a kid at a very large, luxury buffet by telling me it was noodles. I knew noodles weren’t meant to be crunchy like that…)
I won’t go into the details, but the key when eating live seafood is to use lots of sauce and not to look — just eat. We continuously told ourselves that, particularly for the octopus, which isn’t so bad once you start chewing. The problem with live octopus is that it stops moving after it sits on the plate for a while, but as soon as you touch it with a chopstick it goes haywire all over again. The idea of eating something that was still moving bothered me the most, so it was mostly a mental block that I had to overcome. Since the sea pineapple was very much dead, it appeared to be a much better alternative for me, though it had a strange texture that reminded me vaguely of lychee.
At some point during our meal, Will reminded me of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip that he had told me about earlier in our trip (included below, sourced here):
“Too real” — that’s just what our dinner was. After that meal, it caught on as somewhat of a catchphrase for our trip. Thanks, Bill Watterson — you’re good.
After leaving our half-finished meal somewhat apologetically and thanking the waitress, we went off to explore the park and lit-up pagoda at the end of the bay, where we found other people strolling around and enjoying the view. We spotted a nice bench and settled down with some chocolate snacks and makgeolli (rice beer) to fill our unsatiated stomachs.
We headed back after a bit to set up camp, which consisted of laying down a light tarp to sleep on and smoothing out the sand underneath. The campers around us had all quieted down, so it was a pleasant place to be — I fell asleep to the soothing sound of small waves crashing and receding under the moonlight. What an adventure. And it was only our first day.