A Day of Strange Food: Pig Rectum & Sea Squirt

September 03, 2016

Every weekday, I eat lunch with 1200 high schoolers and my colleagues; all Korean except for another American English teacher. A typical Korean school lunch consists of kimchi, rice, soup, a main course (meat), and a range of banchan (side dishes). One day, a few months ago, the menu consisted of a spicy cucumber and onion salad, fried fish, and bongchu-jjimdak, seasoned chicken simmered in a sweet soy sauce with vegetables and rice noodles. The soup of the day was a peppery medley of seafood and vegetables. It wasn’t the star of the meal, but I liked the subtle flavors - a break from the typical, salty combination of soybean paste and seaweed. At lunchtime, I often quietly enjoy my meal while listening to the rhythms of my coworkers chewing and chatting. I’m studying Korean regularly these days and I manage some basic conversation with a carefully selected set of kind and patient work friends and colleagues. On this day, after reviewing the lunch menu, my friend and (at the time) coworker Heemang made a happy squeal and corralled me to the lunchroom. “Caja! Let’s go!” she said. Heemang is a close friend and, though I can’t always anticipate what she'll do or how she'll feel, we share a common language: food. I rarely see her as excited about anything as she is about good food. She once insisted on the most important phrases one must learn in another language: in Korean, baegopeo (I’m hungry!) followed shortly by baebureo (I’m full!).

At the lunch table, Heemang lifted her spoon toward me, revealing a small, alien thing she had pulled from her soup. I had seen one before; in fact, I had seen it mere minutes before when I’d discovered it lurking in my soup bowl and shuffled it aside. I generally love Korean food and I like trying new and interesting foods. That being said, in my experience, small, pimply, testicle-shaped things - found hiding on a crowded table, sinking to the bottom of a large pot, or resting delicately in a small dish and boasted about by ajusshis (middle-aged Korean men) - tend to contain shocking and/or unpleasant flavors. I was content to ignore my little alien friend and otherwise enjoy the meal. Instead, I learned about a new creature that might just show up on your future dining table in Korea: the mideodeok.

In English, we call this a stacked sea squirt. Its Latin name is the styela clava--I know, right? Google it. It looks like mummified genitalia. According to my friend, there are varying reactions to this creature. Korean mothers commonly add it to soup, although it is not always a welcome addition. It doesn’t seem to contribute to the flavor of soup, since its essence remains trapped inside a seemingly impenetrable outer shell. However, it will - if you are bold enough to bite - bring a sense of surprise and perhaps delight when it explodes with shocking force and releases its juice into your mouth. The juice wasn’t bad. It tasted medicinal, like many small sea creatures I’ve eaten in Korea. In fact, its bitter, herbal quality led me to believe that it might offer some nutritional benefits. The taste was acceptable; the explosion was unsettling. When Heemang was younger, she referred to the mideodeok as poktan, or “bomb.” If the explosion isn’t enough to dissuade you, perhaps it is the utter chewiness; I contended with the rubbery carapace for several minutes after which I stubbornly swallowed it whole. A few weeks later, at a staff luncheon, I was again served a bowl of soup swimming with the things. I watched my older colleague pop open the mideodeok, consume its liquid, then deposit the remains onto the table. Good strategy, I thought.

Keep in mind that many Korean delicacies come with proclaimed health and dietary benefits. The mideodeok is no exception. There is an annual festival in Changwon celebrating this creature, which is said to prevent heart disease, suppress free radicals and counteract aging, promote healthy metabolism, and detoxify the liver. Mideodeok is not only served in soups, but in stir-fries, jeon (savory pancakes), and even pickled as a side dish. I was told that some of the mideodeok’s primary enthusiasts are ajusshis. Not surprising. Several years ago, my husband Ryan and I taught at an English academy on Geoje-do, a large island off the south-eastern coast of Korea. One night, we went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a group of adult students. One of those students who would later become a friend - a biker in his late thirties - liked to eat very spicy food in order to demonstrate his prowess. During dinner, he challenged Ryan to eat an entire hot pepper. When Ryan refused, he ate the pepper himself. His face swelled and flushed. Later in the meal, he ate another one. His eyes filled with tears and he cried. Eating strange, gross, extremely spicy, and otherwise very challenging things is an excellent way to show off to one’s friends and associates. And so, enter the mideodeok, hated by children, loved by ajusshis and mothers. It was the first strange item I ate that day.

I had agreed to cover an evening class for Heemang so she could catch a train out of town. I was happy to help, but I demanded payment for my efforts, in the form of taking me to try makchang: grilled pig rectum. It’s a dish I’d been wanting to try since we moved to Korea, but was too intimidated to order without a trusted Korean guide. She had heard from a friend that the best place to enjoy makchang was a very small restaurant in a neighboring city, home to our region’s famous Gwangyang bulgogi. And to a particular makchang restaurant run by a very particular man. After work, we dropped off our things at our respective homes and went on our way.

After a few near collisions and a growing suspicion that Heemang was scouting a location in which to murder me and bury my body, we arrived at the makchang place. The exterior of the building was so shitty that I knew the food being served in there had to be special. This is one of the international travel rules that I swear by: find a local place with depressing decor, dim lighting, and a chillingly cold breeze coming through a tattered window and you have likely stumbled upon culinary greatness. I imagine this rule has about a 60% success rate, though it has yet to fail me. We opened the sliding front door, and took a seat at a round table with the customary firepit in the center. A large group of drunk ajummas (middle aged Korean women) sat laughing and cursing in the corner. Heemang ordered two portions of makchang, which were served with pig skin, a surprisingly good bean sprout soup, and two kinds of kimchi - one was crisp, spicy, and fresh while the other was older, spicier, and very sour. I like older kimchi, the stinky kind that's been sitting in an earthenware crock for years. One of the best meals I’ve had in our small town was a bubbling pot of kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) made with kimchi that had fermented for two years.

The owner of the makchang place was a gentle but meticulous man in his forties or fifties with beautiful dark skin and a honeyed voice. He wore a black Puma tee shirt and a gold chain. He swiftly delivered our various pig parts. Uncooked, makchang is wiggly and gruesome looking. Heemang warned me that makchang takes a long time to cook, and this turned out to be true. In the meantime, we enjoyed the pig skin and ordered a bowl of ramen to share. Over the course of an hour, the owner - who, to my delight, never once commented on the fact that he was serving a waegukin (foreigner) - repeatedly returned to our table to nurture the makchang and boast about his product. He spoke in Korean; Heemang translated. He cut the flesh into little rings; he turned each ring over and over again on the grill. He informed us when each piece of pig skin was ready to enjoy by gently placing it on the edge of the grill nearest us. “You won’t find makchang like this anywhere else,” he said. “Only 0.1% of people have enjoyed makchang of this quality,” he said. “I’m only translating,” Heemang said, “It’s not my opinion.”

Even as tables began to fill up, it felt as though we were receiving special attention. When the first sheet of pig skin began to bend and crisp, the owner swiftly removed it, informed us that it was inferior, and replaced it. The skin, once cooked, became caramelized and soft; we dipped it in the tiniest amount of salt before enjoying it. The grilled pig skin I’ve had at other restaurants in Korea has been tough and chewy; not so here. I wanted to know more. Luckily, at my table there happened to be an impeccable interpreter. So, I grilled him. I asked exactly how fresh the makchang was. He told us that, generally, from the time the pig is butchered to the time its marinated rectum reaches the grill, a mere 24 hours has passed. I asked where the farm that supplies the pigs is located. “Naju,” he replied. I asked him what the pigs on that farm eat. “Corn,” he replied. “What a strange question,” Heemang said. “Not really,” I replied. “After all, consider what we’re eating.”

I’m pleased to report that the makchang was delicious. Heemang informed me that while makchang is generally served with chojang - a sweet and spicy sauce made of red pepper paste, vinegar, garlic, and sugar - the owner of this restaurant refuses to serve the sauce. He claims this is a method of preventing the customer from detecting that the meat isn't fresh. In my opinion, it was excellent without. Midway through the meal, during a moment in which both Heemang and I were taking photographs of our food, the owner approached the table with his smart phone. Here we go, I thought, preparing to have my photograph taken. I imagined where he might post the photos of foreigners enjoying his makchang. Perhaps he has a facebook page. So much for being treated like a regular customer. To our surprise, the owner began to arrange the crispy little rings of pig anus into a heart shape. He took several photos of his creation, smiled, and walked away.

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6 comments

  1. You are more adventurous than I am! I have not embraced the eating of organs yet. I tried intestines and couldn't do it; too chewy.
    Also, the sea squirt I was introduced to in my school lunch. My co-teacher told me to bite it but not eat it. Ha! What a weird food!

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  2. I would love to try those things. You make me wish we had plans to venture to Korea soon.

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  3. Interesting cuisine Mal. Your description was precise and enticing! I would try it once. Also, your inquiry about the pig was justifiable. Great story :).

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  4. Easily my favorite thing you've written! Detailed, engaging, and often hilarious. Keep it up!

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  5. Thanks for the comments! For those of you not in Korea, you should definitely come visit and we'll try this and more weird stuff!

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