Monday, March 18, 2013

Korea - Eating Seafood - A Moral Dilemma

Eating Seafood in Korea - A Moral Dilemma For Your Main Character.

By Joel Gonzaga

Do you ever pity the lobsters in the tanks at your local seafood restaurant? If you do, that means you’re human. You’re only coming in because you’re hungry. You’re not the one who cooks the lobster. You don’t even watch it get cooked. You have nothing to worry about. You’re still a good person.

Eating seafood in Korea can make you feel like a bad person.

One thing any novelist needs to know about Korea is that the restaurants are much more compact. Imagine the size of a Starbucks - that’s the size of a typical Korean diner. The reason for this is economics. Space is at such a premium in Korea that few people have room in their apartments to cook. Thus, small diners fulfill the demand of meals. The best way to understand it is this: a city block in the United States might have a handful of large restaurants.  In Korea, there are dozens of smaller diners within the same space. And they’re stacked. The place you want to eat might be on the third or fourth floor. But difficulty to reach one’s dining destination never deters patrons because eating out is, strangely, more economical in Korea than owning a house or apartment with a full kitchen.

At one such location was a delicious seafood locale. My colleagues and I decided that this should finally be the place for us to eat. Outside the diner there were several tanks of identical fish and crustaceans. They all swam in their tanks in strange, sanitized, and blissful ignorance. Some tanks even had currents for the fish to swim against, thus keeping them alive, fit, and fresh.

We all crammed into the tight, rectangular room of the diner. We were seated in lightweight, stackable plastic lawn chairs. Our circular table had a single, giant, flat frying pan in the center of it. This is fairly typical of a Korean diner. They served us tiny aluminum, dixie-cup sized waters, bowls of rice, and several saucers of condiments. Our boss ordered in Korean.

The server came back and sprinkled a thin layer of rock salt and seasoning on the pan. He flipped a few switches and got the the pan sizzling. He then left us, and came back with some very confused, and very alive shrimp in a colander.

He dumped the hapless crustaceans onto the sizzling pan and slammed a glass lid on top of it. He then walked away casually to his next patron.

The poor gray shrimp flapped and jumped helplessly against the glass ceiling of their torture chamber. The flapping and sizzling sounds were like microwave popcorn, except you do not normally watch your popcorn transition from slimy wet gray into the tortured -yet scrumptious- pinkish orange.

When the brutal mass murder had been fully executed, our waiter returned. He hurriedly clipped off the heads of each shrimp. Not that he was going to throw them away, of course. Rather, he served us the shrimp heads as well as the extremely fresh tails. Think fried pringle for the tails, but add a muddy bean curd center for the heads.

Yes, I admit that it was a sad dismal sight. But what can you do after a full plate of shrimp valiantly gave their lives for you? They were even thoughtful enough to make sure they were cooked on both sides. There was really nothing to do but enjoy the shrimp with everyone else.

If you ever eat shrimp like that, you will feel like a slightly terrible person. If your character is a Westerner, she might become a vegetarian. And if your character is forced to eat a sizzling shrimp head, make sure a black eyeball or antennae twig gets stuck between her teeth. That will totally destroy any first date.

Joel Gonzaga is an American who spent an adventurous year in South Korea and has returned for numerous visits, although he has still not developed a liking for shrimp heads. Further writings can be found at his website.

For all Korean Expats, this shirt is for you:


  1. I hear you, Joel. Eating seafood anywhere is a moral dilemma these days. The Toronto Vegetarian Assoc website advises cutting out seafood before one cuts out chicken or beef; many fish varieties are depleted and chicken and beef are not endangered species. The only thing worse than what you describe is the live fileting of fish by some sushi chefs to demonstrate their freshness. Imagine a live skinned fish, twitching and looking at you, as your fork hovers over its flayed flesh. Too cruel!

  2. Been there done that - at a Korean wedding. I actually couldn't manage to look or eat anything except the wedding cake.
    I know in Asia eating extremely fresh food is the norm.
    I suspect I'd probably stick with noodles.

  3. That was a delightful read :) And yes, I can eat dead things as long as they're dead before we meet, but I don't want to see them suffering for my meal!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Excellent perspective that you can only get by going there, or reading an awesome post like this on Novel Travelist. I am not going to be in Korea anytime soon, but I feel like I just experienced it through this post! Great job.

  6. Thank you for the nice compliment Lindsay.