By Robert Neff
There has always been something magical about the East Sea. In the 19th century it was the hunting grounds for Western whalers. In Korean legend it was the domain of water ghosts and mermaids. And in modern history it was the final stage for the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Many years ago, it was my favorite place to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Of course, during the summers, finding a place of peaceful solitude was nearly impossible as the beaches were filled with frolicking families, mischievous schoolboys and the occasional military patrol.
The only time one could truly find a lonesome peace was during the winter months when it was too cold for anyone but the most determined.
However, the East Coast wasn’t always so crowded during the summer. Sometime in the late 1930s, a Japanese soldier spent some time along the coast and took pictures of a quieter time. It is through his lens that we are granted a very fleeting view of Korean fishermen and their hunt for a “crow thief.”
It is said that squid sometimes pretend to be dead by floating on the surface of the ocean. When hungry birds, such as crows, swoop down and try to peck at the “corpse,” it suddenly reanimates and snatches the would-be scavenger by its legs to drag it beneath the waves. Presumably, this is why squid are called “ojeokeo” – the hanja characters mean ‘crow, thief and meat.’
Judging from the pictures, the squids’ tactics had little impact on the Korean fishermen.
I still recall how confused I was when I first encountered “san ojingeo” on a restaurant’s menu. I mistakenly thought it meant “mountain squid” (I was thinking along the lines of Rocky Mountain oysters) and was embarrassed when my friends pointed out that the word “san” meant “live.”
The next time you are out drinking beer or soju with some friends, treat them to a handful of dried or roasted crow thief.
Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.