Banned — Sannakji: the Asphyxiation Octopus

There are few things in the world that I would not eat. I’m fairly adventurous and there has yet to be anything in this Banned series that I wouldn’t have tried (though the blood clams I’d eat would most definitely not be from China). Sannakji is where I draw the line — I like my food to stay still on my plate.

What is Sannakji?

Put simply, Sannakji is live octopus. In actuality, it’s a little more complex than that.

Records show that Sannakji has been consumed since the Three Kingdoms period of Korea, as early as 57 BC. It is made from nakji, the Korean common Octopus, sometimes translated to ‘baby octopus’, because of their small size. This translation adds an extra layer of discomfort for the casual observer so it should be noted that Sannakji is not ‘baby octopus’, and ‘small octopus’ may be more accurate when the context is considered.

The preparation of Sannakji appears to have remained unchanged since the early Three Kingdoms: it is eaten raw. Raw may actually be a bit of an understatement. Steak Tartare, minced beef or horse, topped with raw egg, is a raw dish. Sannakji is not only raw, it is alive. Sannakji is considered a type of Ikizukuri, a Japanese term that means prepared alive.

It is prepared as follows. Firstly, the octopus is squeezed to remove the mucus within (it is said to give the octopus a foul taste if consumed), the head is then cut off, often being butterflied first and then severed. The legs are then chopped into pieces, followed by the head, which is served alongside them. The legs will continue to move while on the diner’s plate, and are often served with ginger, sesame oil and sesame seeds.

Having just read that, you may be wondering how anything could be considered ‘alive’ after all that. The complexities of Octopus biology are difficult, especially when it comes to their brains. They have very highly developed nervous systems and one of the highest brains to body mass ratios of any invertebrate (and many vertebrates too). Only about a third of their neurons are contained in their brain, the rest are contained within their arms, allowing some degree of autonomy for each arm. This allows the arms to perform complex tasks and have higher motion control. It also means that, even when severed from the brain, octopus arms continue to function as before, at least for a time.

Now, it should be stated that much debate still surrounds the level of consciousness experienced by octopi. The issue of how ‘alive’ an octopus’ arms are when being consumed is something of a mystery, a demonstration of how little we still understand both our own minds and those of animals. What is not up for debate is that octopus’ arms will still react when touched after being severed from the head and that their suckers are very much still active.

It is this later part that makes Sannakji a risky food. Because the Octopus is still ‘alive’, it continues to move, even as it is consumed. The suckers have been known to stick to people’s throats, causing death by choking. About six people a year die from eating Sannakji. The risk increases substantially when the octopus’ arms are cut into larger portions, or when the Sannakji is eaten whole, a rarer but still practiced way to eat the dish.

There is also a low, but still present, risk of food poisoning from consuming Sannakji, stemming largely from it being raw. Naturally, due to the risk of death from choking and food poisoning, it is banned in numerous countries, including the UK.

Furthermore, Sannakji is considered by both Jews and Muslims to be off limits for consumption, because it is not permissible to eat living animals under Jewish law, and because it is not permissible to eat any sea creature other than fish under Islamic law. The taboo of eating ‘living’ animals is long standing and far reaching.

As to whether these interpretations are correct is of course a matter of personal belief. I personally would not eat Sannakji because of ethical concerns, more than religious ones. When science struggles to answer a question, I think it is better to air on the side of caution. To me, the Sannakji is alive, my eating it causes unnecessary suffering and so I won’t eat it. It may sound hypocritical from a meat eater, but the welfare of an animal is of great concern to me.

By establishing a better relationship with the way we consume meat and food in general, we can have a more sustainable future for ourselves and for the planet. Sannakji to me is the antithesis of that, barbarity from a different time.

With all that being said, I’m no puritan. Cultural factors and sensitivities vary wildly, the division between East and West being particularly apparent. It is important to take a step back and think why exactly we find something abhorrent. Is it because it is, or is it because the other guy’s doing it? Here in the West we have foie gras, a dish with its own controversies.

While I may not try Sannakji and I’m okay with that, the curious can sample the dish in South Korea, and many other Asian countries, with rumours also circulating that many restaurants in Korea towns across the world also have an off menu version of the dish for the hungry, adventure-seeking diner.

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

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