Fear Factor Foods Korea : How Fresh is Korean food ?

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Fake plastic models of alternatively safe ‘Korean fast food‘ meals for purchase.

Warning:  video links referred to in this post are not for sensitive viewers or animal lovers.

Last year, I wrote a post, Fear Factor Foods in Korea: Foods which may make you cringe. This is belated but is the extension that I accidentally forgot to post…

It’s all too easy for a foreigner like myself, to point a camera and say, Ewww to foreign foods I’m not culturally raised with nor understand. That’s why in this post, I’d like to applaud Korea for is its proud aspiration towards healthy and FRESH foods.

And …to say, Ewww.

Fear Factor Foods in Korea
How Fresh do Koreans like their food ?

Koreans take pride in their food being fresh. This could mean skinned and still wriggly (i.e. skinned baby eels), wrapped around your chopstick but still crawly (i.e. eating baby octopus) and my all-time favorite–  dead but still smiling.

scary asian foods, traditional markets in korea

Fear Factor Foods  Korea : How Fresh is Korean food ?
scary asian foods, traditional markets in koreaFear Factor Foods  Korea : How Fresh is Korean food ?

Some might call this seductive advertising.

Although I know traditional foods are born from an older/generational palette,  I’ve come from culturally white-washed foods. In the good ole U.S.A, meat doesn’t always resemble it’s origin so closely. Our chicken doesn’t look like it’d “cluck”; and our pork has no resemblance to Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.  What’s always been “behind the curtain” for foreigners is full front and center stage in Korea; this is a shock which takes getting used to.

scary asian foods, traditional markets in korea, fear factor foods, traditional market restaurants

scary asian foods, traditional markets in korea, fear factor foods, traditional market restaurants

scary asian foods, traditional markets in korea, fear factor foods, traditional market restaurants

Raw and Live Foods in Korea

Seafood? Sashimi? When I lived in New York City, I’d have the occasional craving for a good Japanese sushi restaurant. In Korea I can skip the seafood…

For instance, a popular Korean Fear Factor food for foreigners to dare themselves to try is sannakji  or eating baby octopus (video here)– you’ll see the octopus not wanting to go down. Another one is eating live shrimp (video here).

Large seaport cities  in Korea like Busan, boast popular raw seafood and sushi spots like Jalgachi Fish Market, which deal in serving up “fresh catch”. Walking down the marketplace, there lies a whole new vocabulary of strange seafood you’ve not seen before and a sea farm array of clams, cucumbers, crustaceans, fish, eels, etc… being gutted, splayed open, skinned and sold. Point to your ocean desire from rows of tanks and it’ll be taken to the chef and sliced up for your plate. To test your nerves of steel, I hear Korean chefs sometimes like to present the “dead catch” platter with its head or tail still twitching!

But you have to give it to Korea– at least it’s not deep-fried and you know you’re getting it fresh!

Even if you’re far from the ocean, the populous of seafood restaurants will always be there to satiate your briny cravings.
There are many seafood/sushi restaurants (like the below) all over Korea.

scary asian foods, traditional markets in korea, fear factor foods, traditional market restaurants, fish restaurants, seafood restaurants in korea, jalgachi fish market..

Koreans aren’t firm advocates of packaged or frozen meat

Just when you think Korea is advanced, it pulls something old school. For instance, local butchers still exist in Korea… but you can also get your meat at the supermarket too.

But watch where you sneeze! When it comes to supermarkets, you won’t see as much pre-packaging or frozen meats in grocery aisles as you would in the U.S.A.   In popular chains like Lotte  there are meat sections, where you can select fresh meat and have it packaged for your shopping cart.

scary asian foods, fear factor foods, meat section at korean supermarkets like Lotte
scary asian foods, fear factor foods, meat section at korean supermarkets like Lotte, meat sales at lotte

  Free-range, natural and “happy” foods

Some of my students once asked me why I didn’t eat meat. One of my many reasons was about the cruelty which animals are subjected to at farms and slaughter houses. My kids insisted that animals in Korea aren’t treated badly as they are in the U.S.; instead, they are raised on farms, fed well, have space to roam and die happy.

Who could contest that claim to a kid? That’s  how the restaurant banners depicts it.

scary asian foods, korean restaurants advertising free range meat, free range meat, happy slaughtered animals, korean meat restaurants

Happy slaughtered animals

There’s popular belief (or myth) that farm animals in Korea are raised naturally and aren’t injected with tons of growth hormones as they are in the U.S.  Yet, there’s been controversy over dogs being treated cruelly for food (video here) and 2010’s hoof-and-mouth panic, where pigs were thrown into an enormous pit and buried alive (do not watch this *shocking* video if you’re an animal lover); it all makes one wonder.

scary asian foods, korean restaurants advertising free range meatCan’t you just smell the fresh grass off of these pictures?
scary asian foods, korean restaurants selling free range meat

Hand-picked and earthy.

Just when you think you’ve got it safe as a vegetarian, who’ll just eat vegetables, think again! I’ve developed a steady and ongoing gallery of food distrust.

scary asian foods, seaweed seller(Photo above) Seaweed seller.
(Below) Seaweed, which while presented in an unappetizing fashion, is chocked full of iron and minerals.

scary asian foods, seaweed seller, traditional markets in koreaIf it can’t pass through the eyes, ain’t no way your stomach will want to accept it.

I love my veggies but I’ll tell you a secret–when I came to Korea it took me over half a year to get used to either its… strange variety or occasionally, soiled presentation. What I’m talking about is dirt!  Veggies are occasionally sold straight from the soil  to your shopping cart . This isn’t only at your local outdoor markets; sometimes, in grocery stores too.

I’m not 100% certain why Koreans choose to leave the dirt on their vegetables (i.e. carrots, potatoes,etc…); but I suspect it has to do with the idea of displaying produce that’s homegrown, natural and unprocessed.

scary asian foods, seaweed seller, traditional markets in korea

scary asian foods, seaweed seller, traditional markets in korea, ginseng sellers in asia
scary asian foods, seaweed seller, traditional markets in korea

How fresh do you like your food? What’s your Fear Factor Food limit?

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11 Comments. Leave new

Yikes, the pig’s head looks cute and grotesque at the same time. Even though I’m a Chinese, it still give me creeps.

I thought we Singaporeans already shock others with our own version of Fear Factor Foods but these are equally fearful!


This is a fantastic post on a side of Korean food that is rarely looked at in travel blogs, I really enjoyed reading it. Living in Seoul for the last 9 months I thought I’d seen it all in terms of weird food, but then when I visited Busan for the first time this weekend I got a real shock. As you say, some things are just too fresh to be appealing. The splayed eels you mentioned were particularly surprising. I haven’t seen pigs heads in buckets just yet, but judging by your picture, I feel it is a sight I could do without!


    @Natalie: Yes, you’re in the glass bubble in Seoul (unless you visit the traditional markets). ha ha… Busan’s Jalgachi Fish area is a real shocker! Glad you could experience the trippy side of Korea!


The dirt doesn’t bother me, surprisingly!

I used to even be shocked by eating fried fish here in Mexico (complete with head, eyes, tail and fins), but now it’s one of my faves. Not sure what I’d do with one of those Korean pig heads, though…


    @Laura: It’s funny how our culture shock w/ food varies with different people. Dirt- eww.. but fried fish with all the fixings, mmmm. For Hawaii girl like me, I’ve always had a prob w/ fish heads & eyes (which diff fam members like & will suck through) but the tail and fins… nice crunch. Yum!


Awesome post and photos! I love fresh food but could do without the pig heads…


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