I have always been an extremely fussy eater and have given my parents years of tears, tantrums and point blank refusals to eat what was lovingly prepared and put in front of me (sorry about that Mum and Dad!).
One of the main reasons for my move to Korea was to embrace new experiences and broaden my horizons, so here is my list of typically Korean specialities I must (and will!) try before I return to the homeland of fish and chips, roast beef and crumpets.
Some I have tried already but it is a work in progress.
1. 번데기 – Silkworm pupae (tried and tasted)
I was left thoroughly unimpressed after my experience of 번데기 but it definitely qualifies as one of Korea’s most unusual foods. Available ‘fresh’ from street vendors or tinned in your local mini-mart, it is a mind-bogglingly popular Korean snack. The smell is enough to make you retch but it is nothing compared to the taste. Someone had told me they tasted just like peanuts, but that must have been a cruel joke. They did not taste like peanuts. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure what they did taste of, and I’m certainly not going back for more. The worst bit was the pop; the moment that the exo-skeleton burst and the soft guts came spilling out. They are supposedly low in calories and packed full of vitamins, however I am quite happy to miss this out of my diet.
2. 닭 발 – Chicken feet (tried and tasted)
Chicken feet are commonly thought of as a Chinese delicacy but they are also very popular in Korea. Dalkbal can be served either on or off the bone, steamed, grilled, boiled, or fried and usually smothered in a scorchingly spicy sauce. They are served in most Korean barbecue restaurants but also in bars as a drinking snack. I’m yet to try this one…
3. 족발 – Pig’s trotters (tried and tasted)
Another one that I won’t be rushing out to try again, this was served up on a work night out. Not only do you have the rather ‘unique’ texture to contend with but also the extreme spiciness. Imagine tucking into a big knuckle of warm rubbery lard, and then your mouth being set on fire and you’re probably about there. We were even given plastic gloves to wear because they are so greasy. Eating jokbal is said to be good for your skin and prevents wrinkles. It is also supposed to be a pretty good hangover cure, but I’m not sure my gag reflex would agree.
4. 낙지 – Live octopus
This is not one for the faint-hearted. Sannakji is a live baby octopus cut up into bite size pieces and served immediately. So immediately in fact that it is often still squirming when it reaches the table. It is served in most seafood restaurants but also in bars as a drinking snack (noticing a trend here?). There have been cases of people choking on sannakji, especially after a bottle or four of soju, as the suction caps on the octopus’ arms can latch onto the mouth or throat on the way down.
5. 보신탕 – Dog meat soup
No list of unusual Korean foods would be complete without dog meat making an appearance. Controversial I know, but dog meat is falling out of favour with young Koreans. Most have tried it at some point but very few have anything good to say about it. 보신탕, dog meat soup, literally means ‘body nourishing soup’, and is said to increase virility. It is usually eaten in the summer as the spiciness apparently balances out the body temperature. Technically illegal since 1986, it can still easily be found in many Korean restaurants.
6. 도토리묵 – Acorn jelly (tried and tasted)
Dotorimuk is a brown jelly made from acorn starch. It originated in the mountains, but became very widely eaten during the Korean war during food shortages, and it is now considered to be a health food. Acorn jelly is usually served mixed with chilli, garlic, soy and sesame as a side dish. Of all the things on this list, dotorimuk is probably the only one I’d have seconds of. No nasty surprises, and all the taste comes from the marinade.
7. 껍데기 – Pig skin (tried and tasted)
A firm favourite with middle aged men after a few bottles of soju, ggupdaegi is thick pig skin grilled over a Korean bbq; a bit like crackling but without the crack. Not crunchy, not chewy, not greasy, it is quite soft and not wholly unpleasant once you get over the piggy-ness of it. Found in almost all Korean barbecue restaurants it is definitely worth a try.
8. 순대 – Sundae
Not to be confused with ice-cream and sprinkles, sundae is a kind of Korean blood sausage. It is usually made from boiled pig’s intestines, stuffed with dangmyeon (glass noodles), barley and pig’s blood, although there are many other varieties. Perhaps not hugely dissimilar to black pudding but even my love of an English breakfast never convinced me to try that…
9. 해파리 냉채 – Jellyfish (tried and tasted)
After a slightly traumatic incident on a family holiday in Spain, jellyfish was something I didn’t have much of a problem trying; after all they do say revenge is a dish best served cold. Haepari nengche is thinly shredded jellyfish salad in a sweet mustard sauce. Unsurprisingly it takes a fair amount of chewing but it actually wasn’t too bad!
10. 감자탕 – Pig spine soup
Gamjatang, an Incheon speciality, is a spicy red soup made from separated pig vertebrae, vegetables, onions, peppers, and sesame seeds. It originated in Jeolla province in south-west Korea, and when Incheon port opened up many people migrated north and brought the dish with them. It became popular with labourers as it’s cheap, nutritious and it has a high fat content.