Gwangju, South Korea – An elderly man’s life tragically ended in Gwangju after he choked on a serving of san-nakji, a popular Korean dish featuring live octopus. The 82-year-old man was consuming the dish, known for its still-moving tentacles, when he began to choke, leading to a fatal heart attack. Despite emergency interventions, he was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
San-nakji, often a topic of culinary intrigue and debate, is prepared by quickly cutting an octopus before serving it immediately, resulting in twitching tentacles due to lingering nerve activity. This gives an impression of the octopus being alive, captivating some diners while disconcerting others. The dish is not only a testament to traditional Korean cuisine but also represents the broader culinary daring that characterizes the country’s gastronomy.
Despite its popularity, san-nakji is infamous for its potential danger. The suction cups on the octopus tentacles can stick to the mouth and throat, posing a serious choking hazard. This risk isn’t merely hypothetical; the dish gained global attention with a scene in the 2004 South Korean film “Oldboy,” and real-life incidents, including fatalities, have occurred. From 2007 to 2019, several choking deaths in South Korea have been linked to eating live octopus, reinforcing the dish’s reputation as one of the world’s riskiest foods.
Alongside other dangerous delicacies like pufferfish and certain wild bullfrogs, san-nakji’s perilous nature continues to attract thrill-seeking food enthusiasts and tourists. The dish was even featured by famed chef Anthony Bourdain in a 2015 episode of his show “Parts Unknown,” underscoring its enigmatic appeal in global culinary circles.
This incident’s chilling nature echoes a notable legal case in South Korea involving san-nakji. In 2012, a man’s claim that his girlfriend died accidentally choking on the dish led to a controversial “octopus murder” trial. Initially sentenced to life in prison, the accused was later acquitted by the Supreme Court, citing insufficient evidence.
The recent tragedy raises vital concerns about the safety protocols in serving such adventurous dishes and casts a spotlight on the complex balance between culinary heritage and consumer safety. While san-nakji remains a cherished part of Korean cuisine, this event underscores the need for caution and respect for the risks inherent in some of the world’s most audacious culinary experiences.