SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap)-- On a sunny Sunday in Seoul, brunch is being served at the Paris Grill in the downtown Grand Hyatt Hotel atop Mt. Nam. Servers swish between the tables topping up flutes of champagne, individual leaves of romaine lettuce are arranged in a silver vessel and smoked salmon glistens in the tasteful lighting. There are freshly squeezed juices, grilled lamb chops and made-to-order omelets.
Looking out the windows, you have a panoramic view of the heaving metropolis below. From here, you can see the extreme juxtapositions of the Korean capital: luxury apartment complexes with industrial slums in their shadows and gleaming glass skyscrapers reflecting endless rows of cement eyesores.
When it comes to cuisine, the brunch at the Paris Grill represents one extreme of Seoul. You can quaff expensive wines and nibble overpriced dishes in the city until your bank account runs dry. At the other end of the spectrum, you can have unforgettable culinary adventures that run the gamut from the terrifying to the controversial.
If that sounds tempting, a good first stop would be the Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul's main way station for seafood between the ocean and the plates of the populace. "Sannakji" is a now-famous food challenge for any hardy visitor to Korea. Widely available throughout the country and widely discussed online, "san" means "live" and "nakji" means "baby octopus." While not technically alive when it hits your table, it certainly appears to be. Nerves keep the pile of tentacles writhing for the duration of your dinner, and are also the only thing that will get you through this intense food experience.
Yoo Jeong-ok displays a live baby octopus at Noryangjin Market (Photos courtesy of Richard Scott-Ashe)
Yoo Jeong-ok has been slinging fish at Noryangjin Market for 15 years, and doesn't see the big deal about a moving meal. For any self-respecting Korean fishmonger, raw is the only way to go. "You only want three?" she asks as she takes a 10,000 won note and bends to scoop up the ill-fated octopi. As she does, the merchant at the next booth delivers an old Korean saying. "Sannakji would even get a sickly bull to jump right up," he says, inferring the male-stamina-inducing properties that sannakji is believed to have.
You have to chew carefully as the suction cups clutch at your teeth and inner cheeks. Of course, you can't let that rush you, lest they get a grip on the inside of your throat. But the chewy freshness combined with the thrill of fighting your food as you eat it is a treat for anyone who enjoys sushi and is ready to take the next step.
Moving on to the neighboring district of Yeongdeungpo, a short hike from the eponymous subway station, you'll find an alleyway that's become a center for one of the most feared dishes in Korea, fermented skate called "hongeo." Surprisingly, (considering it's essentially rotten fish) there are equivalent delicacies in many parts of the world, such as hakarl in Iceland, kusaya in Japan and surstromming in Sweden.
Yeongdeungpo's hongeo alley
The first thing you notice as you walk through the door of a hongeo restaurant is the smell of ammonia. Skate, like the sharks used in the Icelandic dish, urinate through their skin, which means that the flesh is soaked with pee and goes bad very quickly. But when left to ferment for long enough, eventually the ammonia and healthy lactic acid bacteria overpower the stuff that would otherwise put you in the hospital if put in your mouth.
If you aren't Korean, the first challenge you'll face as you walk through the door is convincing the owner that you're actually in the right place. "I don't think you can eat what we have" was how a perplexed Bang Eun-mi greeted a recent foreign visitor to her restaurant, the locally famous Halmae Hongeo. But once you convince the owners that you haven't made a wrong turn somewhere, you'll likely be enthusiastically adopted to the nearest table so they can also enjoy the spectacle of watching you try to eat the house specialty.
Bang will likely start you off with some deep-fried hongeo, which you could be forgiven for mistaking for fried chicken wings when you see them. But when you bite through the fried outer layer and the ammonia flavor explodes in your mouth, you know you're about as far from a fried chicken wing as you can be. The bleachy taste will remain in your sinuses long after you manage to get it down.
Next up is the main attraction, hongeo-hoe: straight up raw fermented skate. You wrap it up in a mixture of powerful flavors -- kimchi, garlic and boiled pork -- but the thick aroma of ammonia wins out even over these tough competitors. Any hongeo aficionado will assure you that the healthful qualities of the lactic acid bacteria make it more than worth your while. Also, a shot of soju (rice-based alcoholic beverage) is generally put back after most bites to pave the way for the next.
A cup of beongdaegi will only cost you 1,000 won
Next item on the list today: boiled silkworm pupae called "beondaegi." You can stumble across a big bowl of the bugs bubbling away on the corners of many of Seoul's streets. If you fail to find a vendor, don't worry, you can just pick up a can at the supermarket.
Hongeo may smell like powerful cleaning products. Beondaegi, on the other hand, may smell to the uninitiated like something you need to use powerful cleaning products on. The smell can be a deal-breaker. But a true food adventurer will pierce a pupae from the paper cup with a toothpick, and pop it in their mouth.
The point at which you're fishing bits of beondaegi from between your teeth is the point at which many of the most intrepid eaters call it a day. The holy grail of extreme Korean foods, dog meat stew called "boshintang," is often left to wait for another time.