More Food Adventures: Bbondegi and live snails!

Trip Start Mar 23, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Gwangju,
Thursday, May 6, 2010

After eating live octopus, some of that childlike wonder had left me concerning Korean food.  After battling cephalopod bits as they attempt to latch onto your esophagus and choke your sorry self to death, what's next?  I felt like a one hit wonder whose single begins to slide down the charts... Was Nakji the "Tainted love" to my Soft Cell?  The "I'm too sexy" to my Right Said Fred?!?

No!  Like Madonna, I decided to change course and find new and exciting Korean foods to try.  Thought nothing can really compare to the exotic and dangerous Nakji, there are a few foods which surpass it in general strangeness.  

This week I made a visit to Mokpo, where you can stroll along the Harbor and see fishing boats and freighters, and hoards of hilly islands rising in the distance.  There is a great seafood selection, and we added live raw clams and live snails to our pallet.  Old ladies were lined up on the pier selling the snails, which I believe they had pulled off the rocks that morning and put in a large salty vat.  

 "Han ge juseyo!" you say, and they will give you a dixie cup of small snails to slurp.  The snails are still live, and very salty, so you have to put the opening of their shell to your mouth (where their foot protrudes) and suck hard to pull them out of their spiral home.  Inside your mouth they squirm a bit, but quickly give in to your salivary glands and... well, down the gullet.  

Snails this small (and they're as long as the diameter of a penny) have no real discernible texture, but are more like gummy salty candy if you don't over analyze what you're eating.  Mostly I found they tasted like ocean, which is a taste I'm fond of, and so carried the cup around for some time, sucking and chucking shells into the bushes, where many shells had been chucked before.

The Mokpo boardwalk ladies also sell bubble-gum ice cream, and the Korean delicacy, Bbondegi.  Bbondegi, for the layman, means pupa or chrysalis, and is in fact the boiled or steamed pupa of a silk worm.  A google search came up with surprisingly little on bbondegi.  There are a lot of foodies commenting that they just couldn't get up the cajones to try it.  The most interesting source I've found is from J. Scott Burgeson's "Korea Bug" Zine, which  I've been reading in book form, but the article originally ran in Bug Vol. 3 in 1998.  Burgeson is an entertaining and adventurous writer who went straight to the source for his information, interviewing the Managing Director and Executive Director of Sammi Food Co, the then leading manufacturer of canned bbondegi (found at your local convenience or grocery store.)

Burgeson is a fan, which one might discern from his zine title, but for good reason.  The food is not horrible, but actually packs something similar to the consistency of beans.  Not bitter, but not sweet, the food is packed with 55.2% protein, as well as vitamin B1, B2, A, iron and phosphoric acid.  The Sammi executives think that about 7 or 8 other Korean companies produce bbondegi, and they make it mostly from Korean silkworms, though they will import other high quality pupa. (1) 

 Koreans use a lot of silk (the material of choice for Hanbok, traditional dress) which comes from the used cocoon of the silk worm.  Korea is the world's 8th largest producer of silk, which is pretty impressive for their size.  Silk moths lay eggs, their eggs hatch, and silkworm caterpillar feed on mulberry leaves until they are about 10,000 times larger than when they hatched.  They then weave a cocoon, which is unwound by people at silk factories, leaving the larvae to die.  Because of this reason many people now opt for artificial silk, but genuine silk is by no means dead.  Especially when the larvae can be put to use as a nutritious snack! (2)

When I was a child, my father paid me $20 to eat a junebug shell, which he has a special fondness for, being from Oklahoma City.  I willingly at the crusty shell, and collected my prize, which I assume I spent later on more delicious candy, which probably had some extremely disgusting things in it as well.  I can authoritatively say bbundegi is much more enjoyable than that experience was!  I'm adding it to my grocery list.

(1) Burgeson, J. Scott.  "Korea Bug: The Best of the Zine that Infected a Nation." Eunhaeng Name.  Seoul, South Korea: 2005.
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