Monday, February 9, 2015

The Bing-eo Don't Bite but We Do.

I've eaten some crazy things in Korea, but by far the nuttiest died between my molars last weekend. 

On a bright Saturday morning my friend Young-Jung "Jerry" Park and I drove two hours to the rural town of Yangpyeong (양평) on the far Eastern border of Gyeonggi province, close to Gangwon-do. The area is known for many things, like being a comfortable retirement area, insanely delicious blood stew, and a yearly festival celebrating a tiny fish called bing-eo (빙어).  

The name literally translates to "ice fish," but we would recognize it better as a species of smelt. The fish is generally about the size of a pinky, though I saw some longer than my middle finger. And they are traditionally fished in Korea's rivers and lakes during the winter months. This is hardly a trophy sport, though. This is a culinary treat on the level of sannakji (산낙지), live octopus, and one that isn't nearly as well known.

Bing-eo on the ice. We found these dead on arrival.
Bing-eo can be battered and deep fried or gutted and eaten whole, but there is a far more spine-tingling method. Like a pelican with a herring, they are often eaten right out of the water, not just raw but wiggling with the breath of life still present in their gills. 

According to Jerry, a native Korean, the attraction in eating creatures alive is in the freshness of their flavor. Whether in Korea or America, fresh has the connotation of wholesome deliciousness. Except Koreans take the concept to levels we traditionally did not. Have you ever heard that cooking a fish right after catching it is tastier than cooking one from the market? Take that idea one step further and you end up skipping the fire altogether and get sashimi. Take that idea yet another step and for the ultimate experience in the freshest flavor imaginable you have to eat it alive. To get any fresher you'd have to jump in the water and try to bite the critters as they swim. 

I've eaten a lot of raw animals in Asia. And, as far as fish goes, I'm totally behind the fresher is better philosophy. However, I may have reached my limit. I have eaten the tamer version of sannakji, freshly removed octopus tentacles. But I've never eaten an animal that was still struggling to survive. Though it was still moving, that octopus was solidly defeated. The bing-eo I ate were still fighting. 

A live fish does not taste much different from good sashimi, but it does take a different kind of courage than eating a plate of defeated sannakji. Beyond the cultural taboo, the "eww gross" factor, eating something alive adds a new emotional element to wrestle with. 

Families bend over their fishing holes at
Yangpyeong's 2014-2015 Winter Bing-eo Festival.
Most people raised in the industrial world today are far removed from the slaughtering of their food. But eating bing-eo alive goes beyond this. It even goes beyond a fox stealing a chicken for dinner, because at least the chicken is dead when the fox eats it. No, this is like Donald Gennaro being eaten off the toilet by the T.rex in Jurassic Park. The hapless lawyer is still conscious when the beast sinks his teeth into his torso. In the case of bing-eo, the intelligence levels are reversed. Still, it is alive as it is being eaten. It isn't for long; nevertheless, that is a lot to handle for someone who releases house spiders in the garden and steps over ant hills. 

So how does one deal with it? People take different approaches. My friend Jerry, for instance, had a fun perspective. He fancied himself a hungry giant reaching into a village of people with his chopsticks. I, on the other hand, was a bit more down to earth. From the start of the trip, the idea of eating fish alive reminded me of a grizzly bear pawing at migrating salmon. So as I fished bing-eo out of the bowl of water with my chopsticks, I transformed into a hungry grizzly standing in the middle of a roaring stream picking at the leaping salmon. 

Perhaps a psychosocial study can be done on how people rationalize eating lesser animals alive, but one thing was clear from Jerry and my experiences. We both thought the most active fish were probably the healthier to eat. No one wants to eat a floater or a weak, sickly one. That entirely contradicts a major reason behind eating food as fresh as possible. So if you ever find yourself in a village being attacked by a hungry giant or as fish migrating upstream amid famished bears, don't move. 

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