Mississippi Chinese Lady goes home to Korea

She loves kimchi as much as chowchow, but our Southern-born and -raised food editor, Ann Taylor Pittman, had never been to the birth country of her mother.
By: Ann Taylor Pittman

Death comes to dinner

When I was 5 years old in Mississippi, my father brought home a live catfish in a red bucket, and I named him Fred and played with him, sloshing the poor thing around and refreshing his water incessantly. That night, Fred was dinner, and I cried at what I'd seen, but I nibbled the fish because I felt I had to. Seeing your food killed is not uncommon in the South today, nor in Korea. My mother told me about being 16 years old and being given the chore of hacking crabs (plentiful in coastal Busan, even for the poor) for a special dinner; she didn't realize they'd be alive and that she was to cleaver them with a quick chop. She ran from the room, crying, and caught a lot of hell for falling down on the job.

Like many American meat-eaters, I am a wimp about these blood matters, despite the imprecations of nose-to-tail chef-philosophers about the importance of communing with what we eat. Not long before I went to Korea, I decided I ought to attend the killing stump that is located on my brother-in-law's property in Mississippi: He would behead a troublesome rooster, I would make rooster and dumplings, and the circle of life would be honorably, deliciously complete. What unfolded was a Southern Gothic scene right out of a Flannery O'Connor story. It was early evening, with thunder sounding low and distant. Mosquitoes buzzed around like bumblebees—and not much smaller. Catching the rooster was tricky, and the animal became stressed. At last Jamie had the bird, and he held it upside down by its feet because, he explained, roosters will go docile when held this way. But a neighbor's nosy blackmouth cur ran up and began to nip at the doomed bird, causing it to wriggle and squawk. A huge crack of thunder roared, and a downpour arrived, immediate and punishing. The rooster was carried to the killing stump, and I swear that when the ax went up, the sharpened edge glinted in a flash of lightning. Head separated from bird, body writhed on the ground. Let me just say with only a little Southern drama that something died within me that night, too. The rooster proved, despite the ministrations of a pressure cooker, a sinewy old thing.

These matters played in my mind at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, where Veronica suggested we enjoy a raw fish breakfast, which sounded great until I realized that I would be watching more executions. The market consists of stall after stall of clams, mussels, mackerel, skate, live fish in tanks, and live octopus. Many of the stoic, cleaver-bearing female vendors wore full makeup and these fantastic, hot pink, full-length rubber aprons. We settled on a stall, sat at its one small dining table, and pointed to a black fish swimming in the tank. In a flash the vendor had it on the cutting board. Hwack! Head now separate from twitchy body, for our dining pleasure. I felt like I might faint.

I warned Veronica that I drew the line at the reputed local practice of eating live octopus. A few minutes later, though, a pile of writhing tentacles appeared, along with slivers of our freshly butchered fish. The octopus wasn't alive, really—the animated tentacles were already separated from the rest of the animal. My brother dragged a wiggly bit through spicy gochujang sauce, popped it in his mouth, and reported it good. I felt obliged to follow, and he was correct. We also gobbled salmon-colored sea squirts, which had the texture of foamy oysters and an up-front sweetness that was followed by bitter iodine. Hard, tough abalone was the least appealing thing on the plate, like chewing wood. Soju washed all down nicely and at 9:30 started this day with a cheery warmth, despite the deaths.

I am, I think, an adventurous eater, and this story may support the claim to those followers of the Andrew Zimmern school: In Busan, we visit the enormous Jagalchi Fish Market, the largest in Korea, whose seemingly endless grid of vendors inside is matched by a network of outside stalls that extends for several blocks. There we saw a whole floor devoted to dried fish and seaweed. More intriguingly: shallow bowls at many stalls for displaying echiuroid, a horror of pulsating, undulating sea worms of scandalous shape. "Well, we have to try that!" I told Tim, and so we had one sea worm with our lunch. Raw and cleaned, the worm consists of nothing more than a thin, cartilaginous flap that rolled up on itself like wrapping paper. The flavor was that of mild seawater—not nearly as tasty as the sea snails we had eaten on a rooftop bar in Seoul, smothered with chiles and scallions and washed down with beer and soju.

Of course, I would meet my match: fermented skate. Joe took us to a place in Seoul known for its grilled octopus, part of a set meal that included the legendarily pungent treat. He warned us, apologizing in advance, hanging his head, laughing, and finally revealing, "OK, so Zimmern may have declared this the worst thing he's ever tasted." After the typical parade of banchan came a tiny plate that let off an astonishing reek. When skate ferments, uric acid builds up in the flesh, so it stinks terribly of ammonia. It's firm, hideously firm, with bones and cartilage—all of which conspire to make you chew for a long time to get it down. It's served with bo ssam (steamed pork) and kimchi, and one is instructed to layer the components to get some sort of ideal mix of flavors in each bite. To this half-Korean, it was terrible. The octopus—barely cooked, with a delicate hint of sesame and salt—arrived as sweet relief.