Nakji Bokum, or, Old Ones in the Sink

I dismembered, cooked, and ate a baby animal today. What worthwhile thing have you done with your life?

Scaring my mother with groceries is something of a guilty pleasure of mine.  It’s one of the few avenues of resistance left to a humble citizen of the People’s Republic of Food.  I’m also a big fan of the works of H. P. Lovecraft.  So when I passed the frozen fish section this week and spotted a package of baby octopus, I couldn’t resist.

I perhaps should have mentioned that I’ve got a gold medal in leaping before looking.

A few internet searches later, I knew a few things.  One: baby octopus is better than full-grown octopus (apparently the adults are a bit stringy).  Step ahead, as usual.  Two: either way they’re tough little sods and have to be tenderized.  The best way to do this is freezing them.  Step ahead again.  I mucked about on the Googles for a bit until I found the dish I was looking for.  One of the Korean restaurants in our neighborhood serves this dish, and I altered the online recipe somewhat to match what I recalled eating there.

When I brought said little sods out of the freezer this afternoon and left them into the sink to thaw, the Gastronomic Gestapo threw a hissy fit.  What the hell were those horrible tentacle monsters in her sink, get them out of there, oh god, o god, there were horrible tentacle monsters in her sink.  “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn,” I gurgled as best I could, but I don’t think the reference went through.

I had assumed when I bought the suckers (sorry) that they came cleaned.  Oh how wrong I was.  Now, mind, I’m not squeamish in a general way.  I’ve gutted many fish, squirrels, and other sundry critters without turning a hair.  But I hate eyeballs.  Eyeballs freak me out.  Octopus eyeballs are apparently worse than other sorts of eyeballs.  I gritted my teeth and cut around them.

My father, to my surprise, begged to try it when I brought it to the table.  I guess it provided a persuasive alternative to the bean soup we seem to live on most of the time.  I’ve been expecting my mother to yell “This! Is! Sparta!” any minute for a year.  He liked it, even though he’s no great seafood eater.

Mum wouldn’t touch the stuff with the bow of a steam yacht.

Here you can actually see the octopus.

      • 1 lb baby octopus, frozen (about six of the buggers)
      • 1/2 yellow onion
      • 2 fresh green chilies
      • 1 small red bell pepper
      • 4 to 6 shiitake mushrooms
      • 1 tablespoon sesame cooking oil
      • 2 1/2 tbsp gochujang (Korean chili paste)
      • 1 tbsp soy sauce
      • 1 tsp sesame oil
      • 5 cloves fresh garlic or 2 tbsp crushed garlic from a jar
      • 1 tbsp sesame cooking oil (usually a mixture of sesame oil and some kind of vegetable oil)
      • 1 tbsp sesame seeds
      • 2 green onions

Prep Time: 30-40 minutes

Thaw the octopuses by running water gently over it and then letting it sit for a few minutes in a lukewarm bath. Cut tentacles from head.  In the center of the tentacles will be the beak.  Pop it out and take care not to cut your fingers.  Cut tentacles into two-tentacle sections. Open head and remove the insides.  Discard guts, beak and eyes. Cut head into equal sized strips (quarters or eighths).

Cut onion in half from top to bottom, then thinly slice (about 1/8 inch thick). Remove stem from chili/jalapeño peppers, cut in half from top to bottom, and slice into thin slivers. Cut bell pepper in half from top to bottom, then thinly slice into strips. Thinly slice mushroom caps.  Discard stems. Crush or mince garlic into a medium mixing bowl.  Add soy sauce, sesame oil, and gochujang.  Mix well.  Let stand at least fifteen minutes. Add octopus to sauce and let stand for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Heat a stir fry pan over high heat. Reduce heat to medium.  Quickly add sesame cooking oil, onion and peppers.  Stir fry for one minute. Add all other ingredients and stir fry for about five minutes.  Octopus sections should curl up when thoroughly cooked.  Garnish with sesame seeds and sliced green onions.  Serve with rice.

Serves 2 with rice.  Riceless, I devoured the whole shebang myself.

In his house in my stomach dead Cthulhu lies dreaming.

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You’re better off using it for explosions…

Here in the People’s Republic of Food, salt is frowned upon.  For a while, the Gastronomic Gestapo enforced its less-salt policy by moving the salt shaker to the other side of the table if I reached for it, but that doesn’t work on college students.  In recent days, the regime have moved from autocracy to shame-based enforcement: exclamations of dismay when someone salts their food, glares, that sort of thing.  When I pull a container of miso out of the fridge, or get the soy sauce from the

Sodium in water. Kablooie!

cabinet, I am inevitably reminded that it contains sodium.

This, while irritating, is not, of course, wholly unfounded.  It’s even irritating enough to drive me to react, not by argument, but by surreptitiously toning down the salting.  If the Gastronomic Gestapo ever noticed I would die of shame.

The best way to do this, I find, is hot sauce.  There’s that old standby, sriracha, but I’ve never liked the vinegary flavour.  Sambal oelek is a good choice for other vinegar-haters: it’s pretty much just coarsely ground red chilies with minimal preservatives.  I put a tablespoon or three in everything from lentil soup to noodles.  My father says he gets capsaicin burns just watching.  Mae Ploy is good for those who like something more sweet than spicy, but some might not want the sugar.  It’s excellent on potstickers of every variety and makes a good chicken or pork marinade for lazy people.  You could even put a jar of chili or curry powder on the table.  It’s good for salads, rice, or anything else that you would otherwise be inclined to salt.

It also puts you a step ahead in the Sampling Wars.  I’m something of a culinary masochist, so my hot sauce habit has the added advantage of rendering my food unpalatable to my family, particularly my father, who is a born plate raider.

The Saga Begins

It all started with the miso soup.

It was spring break.  I was bored of my mother’s latest Western-style vegan meals.

My mother is a complete nutrition geek, and every so often my father and I find a sudden, apparently random change in diet inflicted on us. This has, in the past, included macrobiotics, which didn’t last; juicing everything in sight, which lasted longer than any of us would care to admit; locally farmed grass-fed meat and dairy, which was delicious; no wheat products, which was torture; and many similar fads.  Along with this comes endless pseudo-scientific chatter about food, food, and nothing but food.  After a few months, invariably she finds that new research has emerged and pronounces us in mortal error, while my father and I think to ourselves “Who’s we, white man?”

I was not opposed to veganism as such, but it was a little disheartening that first Saturday to come home from an exhausting day of paintballing to see raw broccoli salad and beans on the table.  Sunday and Monday brought forth equally disappointing cuisine, and by Tuesday I had a raging desire for Japanese food, no money (paintball had taken care of that), and a determination to do something about all this foolishness.

My mother was waving a cookbook filled with anemic mock-Indian recipes beneath my nose, imploring me to choose one and betake myself to the grocery store posthaste.  I selected one at random, as an excuse to be dismissed, and bolted for the silver Honda mini-van that is my soccer-mom-ish chariot.

I didn’t go to the Giant.

About three miles from my house is El Grande Supermercado, which, despite its name, is the best Asian grocery store within a hungry-college-student-in-a-rush travel radius.  If I had really been in quest of Indian food, I would have gone another couple of miles to the Middle Eastern neighbourhoods, where you can find Lebanese, Saudi, Pakistani, Indian, and Iranian stores all crammed in next to each other with no concern for Arab League politics or the nuclear question.  I shall address all of these marvelous places in due time.

I wasn’t really in quest of Indian food.  A brief foray into the hot sauce aisle and I found the sambal oelek my mother required.  Then I was free.

I knew very little of Japanese cooking, but I was sure miso soup was well within my abilities, and, moreover, I knew what was in it.  Miso and tofu were easily found; we already had spring onions and mushrooms at home.

I pulled up short at konbu and katsuobushi.  I at least knew that konbu was some kind of kelp, and thus to be found in the sea vegetable aisle along with all the sushi nori and things like that.  I had no idea what it looked like.  Katsuobushi was nothing but a mysterious foreign word.

I don’t read Japanese.

A fellow customer, amused at the confused, struggling white girl staring helplessly at the seaweed, came to my rescue.  Katsuobushi proved to come in a plastic bag and resemble nothing so much as wood shavings from a plane.  Apparently it’s tuna, dried whole and then shaved off in flakes.

I grabbed a red bean mochi from the refrigerator section and resigned myself to being stared at by the checkout person.  I have found since that if you’re a white person buying white person stuff, you attract no attention at all.  A white person with a cart full of East Asian groceries is in for surprised faces and silent diagnoses of ‘hopeless otaku’ from every side.  I don’t mind one bit.

When I got home my mother felt the need to inform me at length that a) tuna isn’t vegan and b) miso has a lot of sodium.  I stuck out my tongue, because secretly I’m a twelve-year-old boy, and ten minutes later was cheerfully slurping down a vast bowl of miso soup.

There was no turning back.