April 21, 2012

ARNABites: It's Alive

After eating almost everything imaginable under the sun during my China years, I moved from inanimate to animate objects in Korea. At the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, dozens of fishmongers offer mysterious creatures of the deep to the public for immediate consumption. I was accompanied by my friend Zeki. As we exited the Noryangjin subway and turned towards the overhead walkway leading to the fish market, Zeki mentioned that I should have cash on hand as they probably do not accept credit cards. "No they don't." confirmed a foreign passerby who appeared out of nowhere for that brief moment as if performing a cameo in a movie.

After careful inspection, we selected a couple of octopi. I had wanted to share one, but Zeki insisted on two. He wanted to make sure that we each got a head. The fishmonger put the octopus in a plastic bag partially filled with water and handed it to me. We walked through a narrow opening between several stalls at one corner of the market and headed into a basic restaurant attached to the fish market. A lady roughly grabbed my octopi. I followed her into the back and watched in stunned silence as she quickly chopped off the tentacles and put the various squirming pieces onto a dish.

I had difficulty picking up the tentacles with the narrow metal chopsticks that Koreans generally utilise. I was accustomed to the better grip provided by the Amazon rainforest worth of disposable wooden chopsticks used by the Chinese. The strong suction cups on the tentacles were not helping matters either, resisting my attempts to pry them loose from the plate. After finally capturing one wiggling tentacle I dropped it into the signature Korean hot sauce. It twirled around by itself until it was fully sauced. The paste made it somewhat tasty as the raw tentacle generated little flavour by itself.

I avoided eating the head as long as possible, but soon the time came to devour it. Zeki warned me that it was too difficult to chew, and that I would have to swallow it whole. I did not want to do that, so I chewed valiantly for ten minutes after wrapping it in lettuce leaf. The head was about one and a half times the size of a poached egg, with a similar texture but much stronger composition. The membrane was not breaking down into something digestible despite my best efforts. My strength began to fade so eventually I had to swallow it as Zeki predicted. Overall, it was quite unappetizing but worth a try once.


And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. 
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- William Shakespeare`s Hamlet

April 11, 2012

Luang Prabang: Almish Paradise

A rite of passage for travellers visiting Laos is waking up at dawn in Luang Prabang to watch a stream of saffron clad monks collect alms from a row of kneeling devotees. The monks accept handouts without discrimination from whomever chooses to participate in the ceremony, be it locals who have been following this Buddhist ritual of obtaining merit for years, or beer guzzling backpackers without the faintest idea of why they had to get up so early and buy some overpriced rice from a street vendor strategically positioned nearby almless alms givers. Some majesty is lost with popularity, but it is still a memorable experience.

I woke up a bit after sunrise and hurried to Luang Prabang's main street to catch the festivities. Everyone awake at that time was heading in the same direction, so I followed them. I waited for several minutes until the tiny specks of orange in the distance became larger and larger. As the first group of monks arrived, many tourists swarmed them like paparazzi. Strict behavioural rules such as the way participants should sit (with feet tucked in and not pointing at anyone), dress (modestly), and position their heads (below that of a monk) are all defined. The groups of monks that followed could collect their alms in greater serenity after the initial photo taking frenzy had concluded.


"A jug fills drop by drop." ~ Buddha