Words by Cho Namhee
Without a doubt, eating live octopus is one of the “challenges” that expats in Korea experience in the Korean food scene. Not only do they have that eccentric octopus appearance, but their sucker-filled tentacles threaten the diner with suffocation. Of course, the creature is unable to do any harm if it is lifeless. Jjukkumi, or webfoot octopus, is the beginner level of the octopus challenge you can try without much effort, but the experience can still be full of surprises.
Jjukkumi shares the same genus with the common octopus that the westerner is more familiar with, but it is much smaller in size. During May and June, it is their spawning season and in that sense, March to May is the peak season for having jjukkumi since its head is filled with their roe for breeding. The roe is often called jjukkumi ssalbap. Ssalbap, as in cooked rice, because of its look and texture. It is chewy, rich in flavor, and has a fun pop.
This webfoot octopus did not gain much fame up until a few decades ago. During the period of the “barley hump” (late winter, when foods were scarce), jjukkumi was only a back-up food for residents along the coasts, especially along the south and west coasts. But, it has slowly gained attention for containing high amounts of taurine, twice as much as thin-legged octopi and four times as much as common octopi. Taurine is well known for cholesterol-level reduction, fatigue recovery, and revitalizing brain cells. Due to its abundance during the spring season, there is even a saying “봄 쭈꾸미, 가을 낙지” (Bom jjukkumi, gaeul nakji), meaning “jjukkumi in spring, thin-legged octopi in fall.” Dodari, or flounder, which appeared in the original saying, has been replaced by jjukkumi, clearly showing the position of jjukkumi among the spring delicacies of Korea.
The reason why jjukkumi could be called a starter in the world of octopus cuisine is because they are rarely eaten raw. They are blanched or sautéed for the best taste. However, it is a versatile ingredient that can be put into many kinds of dishes. To note, sautéed samgyeopsal and jjukkumi in red pepper paste is a common sautéed dish that is a bizarrely interesting balance of the two main ingredients’ tastes and textures. You can simply google “jjukkumi” and get a variety of recipes in less than half a second. Try it and rid yourself of fatigue with this eight-legged creature.