Live octopus lollipop

By Daniel Holz | June 9, 2010 8:52 pm

Last week I visited the Institute for the Early Universe in Seoul, Korea, part of the World Class University project, an initiative of the Korean government to build forefront research institutions. It is situated on the Ewha Womens University campus, the world’s largest female-only University. I felt out-of-place walking around, not because I’m obviously a foreigner, but because I was male in a sea of women. The physics classes at Ewha are filled with women, which is (unfortunately) radically different from the majority of other institutions. In 18 months the IEU has built an impressive program, with a number of outstanding faculty (including George Smoot, Eric Linder, Uros Seljak, Bruce Grossan, and Changrim Ahn) and postdocs (including Reiko Nakajima, Scott Daniel, and Teppei Okumura) in both short and long-term residence, and a great visitor program (Ue-li Pen from CITA/Toronto was also in town last week). I’ve had productive collaborations with both Eric and Uros in the past, and it was great to get time with them. I’ve gotten temporarily excited about trying to test whether our Universe is described by a metric theory, but have been getting little traction thus far. Last Friday I wandered over to Yonsei and had a very interesting chat with Joe Silk, who was in town for a workshop.

George Smoot eats octopusMy inaugural dinner with the institute folk set the tone. We went out to a local seafood restaurant. Walking in one passed a number of tanks, filled with live fish, eels, octopus, and various other unrecognizable ocean dwellers. The table next to ours consisted of three Korean women enjoying octopus sashimi. We promptly ordered some for ourselves. The octopuses were extracted from their tank, hauled into the kitchen for a few minutes, and then presented neatly cubed. Octopuses have a fairly unusual autonomic nervous system, with many neurons present in the tentacles rather than the brain. This is a long-winded way of saying that a plate of fresh octopus is a writhing, tangled affair. You rapidly learn to coat the agitating bits in sesame oil before consuming, Octopus lollipopotherwise the suction cups stick to the interior of one’s mouth, somewhat compromising the whole experience. Needless to say, it is a strange sensation. But entirely delicious.

We were clearly amateurs. George managed to inveigle himself a personal lesson from one of the Korean women in how to eat octopus sashimi (only afterwards did she learn she was teaching a Nobel laureate). The lesson consisted of the woman taking an entire live octopus, carefully wrapping the tentacles around a wooden chopstick (metal doesn’t work), and then consuming the entire octopus popsicle in one fell swoop. As she indulged, there were tentacles coming out of her mouth and desperately grabbing her face, clearly displeased with the turn of events. It was starkly reminiscent of Aliens (with some amount of role reversal). It is one of the more unsettling things I’ve seen.

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  • Jimbo

    If I were stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific, I Might eat raw fish to escape death by starvation. But in RealLife ? No way, Jose !
    The concoctions referred to would make me barf endlessly, with only so much as a thought of consuming them.
    I ADORE seafood, but that means, mesquite broiled, baked, or even fried, NOT RAW.

  • Solitha

    The octopus is known to have a startling intelligence. Nevertheless, a being supposedly more intelligent has no problem in deciding that this… what is it supposed to be? Fun? Culture?… is more important than being humane.

  • j9

    Great writing. Para 3 would make a great opening para for a book.

  • Non-Believer

    Wow. You are brave. I could only have done it if they weren’t moving. It would have taken a great deal of internal fortitude, but I think I could have done it.
    But anything that is still moving….Even starving to death, I would have to wait until it wasn’t moving anymore.
    And when you described the tentacles clinging to the inside of your mouth. Arrrghhh!

    Great article. Brave Culinary Adventure

  • Katharine

    That’s cruel to the octopus you ate. You couldn’t be bothered to simply refuse to eat it?

  • Jumblepudding

    If I tried to eat a live octopus and it escaped, it might be the most intelligent thing ever to come out of my mouth.

  • Bjørn Østman

    Perhaps the live octopus was trying to escape from the woman’s mouth because the experience of being eating alive was really painful?

  • CoffeeCupContrails

    Great post, Daniel.

    #7 Jumblepudding, you beat me to it.

    I think I would eat the octopus alive. Somehow, there’s something mildly satisfying and liberating in connecting with the animal deep in me.

    Daniel, do you chew the live octopus or just swallow it? Does it wiggle in your tummy?

  • Jonathan

    The octopus has generally been chopped up and is not eaten alive as far as I understand it. The octopus keeps moving for around 20 minutes after it’s been dissected. Eating chopped up octopus is considerably less cruel than eating any egg which has come from a battery hen in my opinion. I ate this dish (San nak ji) in Beijing and had lots of people who were quite happy to eat meat from completely unknown sources tell me that it was cruel to eat this.

    The other thing that should be noted however is that people do die from time to time eating this dish as they choke on a tentacle which refuses to go down.

  • wds

    Fail @ reading comprehension, Katharine, it was the Korean woman eating a live octopus. You don’t have to agree with the local customs, but you shouldn’t jump on Daniel for simply reporting on them.

    Still, I understand the disgust. Around here, killing animals is usually required by law to be quick and painless. I don’t think being swallowed live applies.

  • Ellipsis

    I ate the adrenal glands of a live walrus in Iglukkak once.

  • Brian Mingus

    The octopus is a machine and it is not intelligent nor self aware. To the extent that the experience is painful, it is unable to reflect on its own pain. The pain serves as a reinforcement learning signal to train the machine not to do what it’s doing, which clearly, in the situation of being eaten by a human, is futile and largely ignorable.

  • DaveH

    @ Brian, 13,

    The ability or inability to reflect upon pain does not make an experience more or less painful. Pain serves much the same function in the octopus as it does in humans, whose younger babies are not themselves particularly reflective about pain. For that matter, I’m not particularly reflective about pain, other than that pain bloody hurts.

    Futility is not generally held to be a criteria for justifiably ignoring the pain of others. Not in general and thankfully not in the medical profession either.

    I don’t quite know how painful a live octopus finds being eaten, but the arguments for or against it surely have little to do with the capacity for contemplation or the futility of protest.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    This reminds me a little of some of my trips to Chinatown with the lab. The food was cooked, but that story they tell you about the restaurants having a different menu for the Mainlanders? Well, it’s true. Get ’em a little liquored up, and you experience the full-on, open-mouthed, belching authenticity of a festive Chinese meal. Lots of things with their heads still attached, and a candid view of those heads being consumed. Shrimp, in particular, got to me. They were perhaps the least exotic item on the menu, but with the full complement of feelers, I had the interesting experience of talking to several people with these antennae and whatever other appendages sticking straight out of their mouths, wiggling and waving about with each crunchy bite. Had any of the menu been alive, I think I might have fainted or something. You’ve more intestinal fortitude than I, good sir.

  • Bjørn Østman

    13. Brian Mingus Says:
    June 10th, 2010 at 3:41 pm
    The octopus is a machine and it is not intelligent nor self aware. To the extent that the experience is painful, it is unable to reflect on its own pain. The pain serves as a reinforcement learning signal to train the machine not to do what it’s doing, which clearly, in the situation of being eaten by a human, is futile and largely ignorable.

    A machine? How the heck do you know? The same way that I know you are a machine? “Ignorable”? Perhaps you can ignore it. Can you ignore it it in human babies who can’t self-reflect? Pft!

  • Carl Brannen

    Ben Franklin’s comment on this would likely be that the octopus eats other animals, why shouldn’t we eat it?

  • P

    Dude, if I were George Smoot I would kick your ass for putting that horrible picture online :-)

  • Mantis

    I would love to see a giant octopus returning the favor by swallowing and digesting you alive.

    Brian: “The octopus is a machine and it is not intelligent nor self aware.”

    Octopus is a machine in the same way you are one.

    The only thing that makes humans unique among animals is the complex speech, but self-awareness isn’t based on speech so animals are pretty much guaranteed to be self-aware. Unfortunately there is no good way to quantify self-awareness even in humans, in animals it is completely hopeless. Yes, it could be lower then ours and in the case of many simple organisms with few neural cells it most likely is, but there is no way to tell how much lower and it is also quite possible there are animals who are actually more self aware then we are.

    Either way making definite statements about it will remain impossible until we have a proper scientific theory of self-awareness but the tiny progress so far means it will be a long time before we do if at all.

    For now the mere possibility of animals being self-aware should be more then enough reason to spare them needless suffering.

  • horrible

    what a horrible post.

  • lookylou

    I’m with Jimbo here: only way I’d do (or watch) that is to be marooned on a life raft in the Pacific. Plus, I think it’s actually illegal in many states in the U.S……..

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    I was struck by the number commentators who complimented Daniel on his “courage” for eating a live, still struggling animal. Oddly enough, I was reminded that certain murderous gangs used to exchange similar praise when one of them committed some specially henious act – they claimed that it took more “heart” to kill a child than an adult. I wonder if Nazi death camp guards had similar traditions.


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