Fear Factor Korea: Foods Which May Make You Cringe

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Last Updated on August 25, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa

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Sometimes you’re better off not knowing what you’re eating; in this case, Korea is just a land of too much information. Why? Korean food is delicious, but pushing it past the gates of your eyes won’t be easy. You might just lose all desire to order anything more than a pizza!

Welcome to Fear Factor Korea!
I’ve had bamboo worms and crickets in Thailand, tiger penis and cobra whiskey in Myanmar, so Korea?… I’m thinking, Easy, right?  But after I had the popular Korean silkworm larvae snack during my first week, and had to live with the sight, smell and taste of it bronzed in the back of my mind, each time I passed it on the street.Woof! Needless to say, Korea has a lot of mystery meats and Halloween-looking “country delicacies” and it has westerner mouths agape, not knowing what to make of it.

SAM 3194Silkworm larvae snacks are popular Korean protein snacks. You’ll find these at many food stalls at hiking spots, festivals or when you don’t want to see it near your food…


Clockwise & left to right: 1) sea-something,  2) flat fish, 3) dried flatfish?, 4) pig’s head, 5) live octopus, 6) silkworm larvae, 7)dried centipedes sold in a bunch, 8) sea cucumber, 9) dried frogs.

IMG 6992Really?!

For short-term travelers and food adventurists, daredevil dining in Korea might be a snap. But for an expat who must experience the sights and smells of these foods on a daily basis, the fear factor can impregnate your mind, solidify distrust and create repulsion over time. While I like to entertain far notions of being a Travel Channel host, I have to face the sad reality… I’m not a daring foodie! I am not Anthony BourdainAndrew Zimmern? Hardly. …And if I were ever cast on Fear Factor, I’d be the first eliminated. My career as a travel host?…

Dead on arrival.

What’s your Fear Factor Threshhold on Seafood?

Busan2 9 27Level I:
Fish. Pretty tame, right

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Level II:
Dried Squid
. Still okay?

Busan2 9 44Level III:
What about this? Some mystery fish. Not too scary, but I wouldn’t buy it…


Busan2 9 64Level IV:
Whoa- yikes! What the hell is this?
!  (… a favorite in  seafood restaurant fish tanks)
It’s a sea cucumber. Tasty!

Level V:
Woof! Live Octopus (a Korean delicacy!)

They say it’s inevitable for  vegetarians to give into eating meat
Not only vegetarians experience difficulties in adapting to a foreign food lifestyle; meat eaters do to! Yet, living in a meat loving country, it’s understandable why many vegetarians yield to that white flag.

–   experiencing the seismic foreign-ness of the Korean food palette.
–   seeing seemingly strange creatures called “country delicacies”,
–   a lack of western food options,
–  food menus written in a foreign language (with no translations or pictures)
–  struggling with language barriers,

… and being faced with overall starvation, it’s just too damn hard!

SAM 3590
My threshhold? Maybe between Level I and II.

Some people would say, “Awww Chris, it’s not that bad” and I’m positive they’re correct. It’s not that bad;  it just doesn’t look easy! Based on visual presentation, some of these foods not only reconfirm my fear of meat, but make me lose my appetite for food entirely.

Adapting to a foreign food lifestyle (aka Just give me a simple ‘ole pizza):
Whether traveling or living abroad, you’ll  be re-learning or negotiating your ABC‘s of food. Even something as simple as ordering pizza can yield unexpected results– you never know what the country’s version of it is! The novelty of Bulgogi and mayonnaise on your pizza can wear thin after a while.

Inevitably, some expats’ vacations abroad to other countries become unconscious scavenger hunts for comfort foods that are missed. As Gina & Joel of A Year in Daegu (a cute couple, who took a year’s sabbatical from the advertising world to experience life in Korea and who recently went to Japan to seek out great sushi… and spaghetti) told me– “I wish Korea would stop trying to Korean-ize everything!” Yes, even something as simple and comforting as a good old-fashioned spaghetti, can give way to expat frustration when constantly bungled by a Korean-ized version of it.

korean pizza
Korean Pizza (Photo: WeirdAsianNews.com)

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Fear Factor cures

While I realize a whole nation can’t be wrong about its culinary cuisine; as a western expat adjusting to “foreign foods”, I’m not used to unrecognizable things on a dinner plate, our food alive and still twitching. In fact, you kinda get turned off. So how do you get through it? Well, here’s what I do…

SAM 2884My GRRRL food trash basket (My biggest food survival secret…yogurt cups & yogurt drinks !)

…Or you can have a native Korean friend (or knowledgeable host) help detonate the fear factor mysteries surrounding Korean food by showing you what it’s all about! This is certainly very helpful and it will make your experience of Korea more enjoyable.

Take my friend and fellow EPIKer Anika, who absolutely loves Korean food! I remember the day she raved about her co-teacher introducing her to the most awesome dish that inspired her taste buds on an orgasmic level– blood sausages …or pig intestines (one of them…).

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I’m not saying I don’t like Korean food; I enjoy what I either know of or can eat of it. But sometimes, you don’t even need to see some Korean foods for your stomach to clench!

Ever experience fear factor as a traveler or expat? What are some of your fear factor thresh holds?

Related Posts

Bizarre Foods, Crazy Korea, Expat Life, Food Travel Guides for Foodies, Korea, Vegetarian Life


  • Blood sausage doesn’t sound too scary to me, but that’s probably since I grew up with the Newfoundland/Irish version (but we call is black pudding usually). To me, it tastes mostly like regular sausage but more bread like, less meat.

    My food fear factor level would be very low. At a restaurant in Northern France I got very anxious because I didn’t recognize any of the types on the menu. I can’t imagine when I couldn’t read the menu either. Yikes. I’ll be visiting Korea for the first time in October and I’m simultaneously excited and nervous about the food situation. Luckily, I have an ex-pat friend who’ll be showing me the ropes.

    • @Melissa: It’s interesting how we all have different boundaries and tolerances due to cultures. Black pudding? Oooh, no can do ; no can do! Korea, aside from their quirky fear factor foods, actually has amazingly flavorful food. The only thing you’d have to do is get over the spice. Hope you enjoy your trip in October! If you find anything that pushes your boundaries, please feel free to share!

  • […] Fear Factor Korea! Foods Which May Make You Cringe (Pt I) Featured Sites […]

  • Since 2002 I have visited South Korea once a year or sometimes twice a year. I am treated to lunches and dinners by my academic or industrial hosts. My strategy has been never to enquire what it is that I am eating. The strategy has served me well for I have enjoyed every meal very much and eaten a variety of food. For the first time in Daejeon I saw a child eat a dehydrated squid, chewing its legs. It was at an outdoor event town concert by the river. I was the only caucasian in the audience of many hundreds of people. The kid got the squid from a guy selling fast food. At first I was shocked but then I realized that this is much much healthier than eating a hot dog or burger as my kids would do in the west. In the west we are being literally poisoned by white bread and carbohydrates and becoming over weight and unhealthy. The business of the fish is interesting. It seems some koreans eat anything that swims. In Jeju I saw a fish market and some fish swimming and I could not tell what was its head and what was its tail. Although these things shock us, it is just a question of being born and bred in such a culture. Perhaps to them it does not cause revulsion at all. Of course, as a westener I try to eat kim chi and beef whenever I am there and have a choice. I did eat raw fish at a top class restaurants on two occassions but found it acceptable and even pallatable. Like I said, secret is not to discover what you are being served! That is the only solution that the westerner has besides ordering what you want.

    • @Daniel: Thanks I totally agree with that-

      that secret is not to discover what you are being served!

      I’m sure on your luncheons you’ve been taken to the best restaurants, where the food is always good. But it’s good sometimes not to inquire about it too much. For me, I just don’t want to always see it in its living form. It’s the seeing part that breaks the alluring spell. I also agree with you about how Korea’s eating habit is much healthier than in the west. Dried squid and fruits are a lot of the “deserts” I’ve seen or seasonal things like baked sweet potato. And even tho they do eat some weird looking fish, fish is actually lower in fat and cholesterol. 😉 Thanks for your comment, Daniel!

  • […] adventurous of a foodie are you? Christine Ka’aloa of Grrrltraveler has pulled together Fear Factor Korea! Foods which may make you cringe.  “May” make you cringe?  There is no “may” about it.  I cringed, I […]

  • Haha, I call sea cucumbers “sea penises.” See the (gross) resemblance?

  • Wow! That sea cucumber has to be the most vile thing I’ve seen! I cannot abide even looking at them when I pass by a seafood place. The rest? No problem!

  • Dear God in Heaven. NO. Just no. I couldn’t possibly eat any of these things. I’d rather survive on grass. I’d eat the bark off a tree if I had to before I’d touch any of these things. I can’t even look at them. I can’t believe you have to look at this stuff all the time. You are a brave woman, Christine.

    • @Gray: Thanks, I don’t consider myself brave at all! I have no choice but see most of them. That’s what fools with my food trust issues. But thanks for commiserating.
      @KissMyKimchi: THANK YOU Brian, for confirming that even wisened expats feel the same about that cucumber! I really think it hits everyone on that subconscious level of fear–a detachable moving body part! ha ha…

  • i asked my co-teacher about the centipedes. the sign says they’re from china. it’s true the chinese eat centipedes as kind of a novelty food, but it’s really not common in korea.

    she also told me that particular cut of pig head is used in a ceremony for when a new business/shop is opened. money is rolled up and stuffed into the pig’s nostrils and mouth. it’s supposed to ensure success and money for the new business. but people do eat pig’s head too.

    • @Julia: Thanks for the translation, J! The centipedes were found in the herbal market so being a China import would make sense; it must have some health benefit Koreans like. Please ask your co-teach about the hoof thing. My CT knows nothing- everything is “I don’t know”. As for the pig head– the one in the photo was in an actual eatery kind of market. But the ceremonial ones you’re talking about– I’ve seen them at festivals! That piece of information is culturally insightful. I can’t imagine how you’re getting along in with the food in this country, though you’re probably doing better than I am.

  • Laura in Cancun
    October 12, 2010 3:32 pm

    Mexico isn’t that bad.. a few icky things, but nothing past a Level II 🙂

    The one thing I can’t stand is that they put ketchup, worcestershire sauce, chile powder and chile sauce on their pizza. BLECH!

  • Hey Chris,

    Yes, I do believe it was ‘Blood Sausage’…but there have been many more since that culinary experience and I am still loving Korean food. I will try almost anything but I draw the line at ‘Sea Cucumber’ (that worm like thing in your Level 3 photo above). However, deep fried ‘Sea Cucumber’ and I might just get along ^^

    On the Western front:
    Like the other night when we went out and (after an hour of searching in the rain) happened upon that quaint restaurant with Westernized salad and Pizza. We learned that ‘빼고’ (without) or ‘따로’ (on the side) helps a lot when you’re trying to have ingredients removed or saved for your more enthusiastic friends.

    Great Blog~ I really appreciate the candid review on food in Korea and the pictures help a ton!

    • @Anika: Thanks. Wow, you’re my heroine! That blood sausage is terrifying too. But you’re fortunate also to have a great Korean support team behind you to encourage you to try those things. It’s funny though– not many people care for the looks of that sea cucumber. I think it’s cause it looks like a detached but alive penis. Deep fried might be less intimidating because the visual familiarity will change. Also, thanks for commenting on those words we learned. They are insanely helpful!

      @Laura: That’s right, I remember that blog you did on the Mexican pizza some time back. I’m actually surprised Mexico doesn’t have many Fear Factor foods. I thought they might have added some competition. =-)

  • Ahh, the live octopus isn’t that bad. You have to pulverize it with your teeth to make sure it doesn’t cling to your throat. Don’t be afraid of Level V!

    That said, sea cucumber continues to look repulsive, and nothing made of congealed pigs’ blood can be tasty (don’t believe the Koreans, or the British in this regard).

    • @Michael: Ha ha… thanks for leaving your comment. It both made me laugh and shudder. Wow, you’re a Level V! My next question would be- did you chew as fast as you could to keep from tasting it and would you go back for seconds? haha.. And am glad I’m not just being girly about the sea cucumber thing.

  • Eeehhh, I. Thought about it a long time. For me personally it’s things I can personally relate to that I can’t eat… Dogs, cats, mice and any kind of insect for different reasons. Brrrrrrr.

  • nice post. level III is sea skate (a small stingray like creature) i think. not bad really. to me it’s very similar to the not delicious parts of a catfish. where did you see the dried centipedes? i’d eat them out of spite. hate those things ever since being stung by a couple on maui. probably taste good with a nice cold beer.

    • @Patrick: So that’s the name of that stingray thing. The frustrating part is the mystery of it all. Surprisingly, the centipedes I found in Seoul. Can’t remember the area- I was lost at the time- but it was an herbal market. I guess you can buy these things by the bushel… like most other things in Korea. Maybe it’ll taste like shrimp.
      @Katja: It’s easier when you can’t relate to the creature on a personal level…. You mean you never had a horse as a kid? Somehow I imagined you would.

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