Eating live octopus - gross or macho?

Anne Kim Sung Yun, director and owner of Crazy Fish,a Korean seafood restaurant, in Solaris Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, showing a live octopus dangling on her hand. Its suckers are strong and the octopus strongly attaches itself on her hand.

Curiosity was what drove me to Crazy Fish after a friend told me about this unusual Korean restaurant specialising in live seafood. And rather exotic seafood too. Yes, I knew about the wriggly octopus tentacles so I can’t say I haven’t been warned. Go on, call me a thrill seeker. Yet, I was not prepared for what was to come.

As Crazy Fish owner Anne Kim Sung Yun fished the octopus from the tank, the very much alive critter glided down her hand and used its suckers to grip tightly onto her palm.

“I’m not holding it,” said Kim. “It’s strong.”

Live octopus is considered “energy food” and a “macho” cuisine. I looked at the octopus and wondered if this belief was rooted in symbolism for you could feel its energy and fighting spirit.

Spoon worms or gaebul are served raw.
Spoon worms or gaebul are served raw.

Then came the moment of reckoning. It was swift. First the head and then a few chops later, the tentacles were dismembered. It was really weird to see the parts still wriggling around when it was served up. I had the distinct feeling that they were still trying to get away. The dismembered parts also had suction power to cling onto the bowl when you tried to pick up the pieces!

I gulped. Kim demonstrated how to eat it, dipped in sesame oil and salt. I hesitated.

“A two-year-old ate and enjoyed it,” Kim told me. Not wanting to lose face to a little kid, I braced myself for the challenge.

She picked up a piece with chopsticks and put it in my mouth. The tentacle held onto my lower lip. Zombie suckers! Help!

After the first bite, I was strangely pacified and did not feel squeamish anymore. It was not so terribly disgusting after all. The aromatic sesame oil helped to enhance the taste of the octopus. It was nice, in fact.

My photographer also gave it the thumbs up. “Guudddddd,” he exclaimed.

Kim told me that live octopus ranks as the world’s third “most gross food” but some foodies enjoy it nevertheless. The fact that live octopus – sannakji in Korean – is the one-year-old restaurant’s bestselling dish tells us something about the Malaysian appetite.

Then there is One Bite Octopus. “Two chopsticks are inserted under the baby octopus head, and its tentacles wound around the chopsticks. Then you gulp it whole, and chew the slimy thing,” said Kim. Lucky for me, the restaurant ran out of baby octopuses!

Raw sea squirt is a popular dish.
Raw sea squirt is a popular dish.

Earlier, Kim had also picked out a few marine spoon worms or gaebul (they look like longish balloons) from the holding tank. When she held and squeezed one, it urinated, much to our amusement. I had eaten this worm sashimi-style in Seoul but had never seen it live.

Although the sea worm was also cut up live, the pieces did not wriggle posthumous. On a plate, they resembled pig’s intestines but had a reddish inner lining. It is eaten raw, dipped into a selection of sauces: sesame oil and salt, Korean chilli sauce, or spicy house sauce made of garlic, onion, bean paste and Korean chilli paste. The worm was very chewy. Full stop.

We also ate halibut and flounder – raw. The flounder was a little more tender than the halibut, but both the flat fishes yielded smooth, firm flesh and a fresh “sea” taste. The flounder was cut in a special way – in thin and long slivers – for that preferred chewy texture. The halibut was sliced in thin, broader slices.

The way to eat them was to take a piece of sesame leaf and place on it, fish, garlic and green chilli slivers and top with wasabi. Wrap it up like a small parcel, and pop it in your mouth.

‘Oily’ flesh from the halibut’s belly makes perfect sashimi.
‘Oily’ flesh from the halibut’s belly makes perfect sashimi.

When you chew on it, the minty leaf gets masticated with the fish. A combination of flavours explode in your mouth, particularly the strong minty taste of the leaf, and deliver that wow factor! The excitement was comparable to the time when I ate blue cheese in Melbourne during a foodies’ tour.

Leftover parts of the fish such as bones, head, intestines and roe are not wasted and can be used to make soup.

Kim also served us raw sea squirt (resembling a squid or lotus root) and several more seafood dishes. While the outer skin was leathery and inedible, in contrast, the insides were soft, moist and jelly-like. I simply loved it!

Assorted Steamed Seafood was a grand harvest from the sea which included scallops, oysters, a variety of sea snails, squid, big clams, blood cockles and mussels. The blood cockles didn’t ooze blood (since they were steamed) but were plump and meaty.

Grilled turbot, a highly-prized species of flatfish, had great flavour and firm flesh. Given a choice, I would love to have sambal belacan on the side.

Flower Crab Soup (a serving for four) came with dropwort, shrimp and spicy miso and chilli. The soup whetted the appetite and I couldn’t resist having a second bowl! But you have to use your fingers to “attack” the crab, of course.

Flower Crab Soup is a lovely spicy seafood soup.
Flower Crab Soup is a lovely spicy seafood soup.

The lunch review was not over yet. We had to make room for a huge pan of Broiled Frogfish, also known as Goose Fish. Kim explained: “It’s an ugly fish with a big mouth.”

Big-head bean sprouts were first stir-fried with a spicy Korean miso and chilli paste before the pieces of fish were added and slowly broiled. It was a very spicy dish which also had mussels, prawns and warty sea squirts. Cut into chunks, the frogfish pieces looked like chicken. I ate a piece with bone and flesh, and found the texture similar to stingray.

The tiny cooked squirts were queer. As I chewed on them, I could hear the unending crunch and it felt as if I was exercising my jaw. I was secretly hoping that I was not gnawing on the squirt’s gonads.

I asked Kim if they were edible, she assured me that it was fine to spit them out as the outer skin was unbreakable. What was rather weird about this experience was the whiff of lemongrass that emanated as I chewed on the squirts – no lemongrass was used in the cooking.

This was an exceptional dish if you didn’t mind the chewy bean sprouts and Apiaceae – an aromatic plant with a hollow stem which looks like spring onion but tastes like leek.

The Fried Oysters lightly coated in egg batter reminded me of yummy fritters. Perhaps they are best eaten dunked in chilli sauce.

Abalone Porridge is a thick gruel with sliced abalone. Although mildly seasoned, it was tasty. Some Koreans like to eat it with kimchi (fermented vegetable).

The Assorted Steamed Seafood platter consists of scallops, oysters, a variety of sea snails, squids, big clams, blood cockles and mussels.
The Assorted Steamed Seafood platter consists of scallops, oysters, a variety of sea snails, squids, big clams, blood cockles and mussels.

I learnt from Kim that the catchy name of the restaurant was given by her husband, Albert Kim, and referenced those who are crazy about fish and seafood. The restaurant peaks on Thursday evening through to Saturday as shipments of live seafood arrive every Thursday. The restaurant has regular and seasonal menus. For lunch, there is a light menu of noodles and soups.

The restaurant is having its first anniversary appreciation promotion till May 13. There is also a Let’s Go Crazy (May 8-9) promotion where diners at Crazy Fish can share “crazy moment” photos on the restaurant’s Facebook page and enjoy special discounts (except drinks and beverages).

I left the restaurant feeling heady from an overdose of exotic seafood (a compliment actually), an extravagant Korean feast.

Past midnight, a colleague WhatsApp-ed me to ask if “the poor octopus was still crawling around in my stomach”. Crazy, I thought.

Note: The following video contains scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers. Your discretion is advised.

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