Fermented skate (Hongeohoe, Hongeo) is well-known as the hardest thing to swallow in Korea. Its smell is similar to the smell in a public toilet. If you are looking for something you have never done before, then tasting this weird dish is the one.
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Skate is put in the refrigerator about a month to ferment and have a nasty ammonia smell, but many Koreans are addicted to it. Fermented foods are often annoying but “hongeohoe” (hongeo, hongeo-hoe) is a Korea’s specialty. This dish is considered to be one of the terrifying dishes in the world, even for the bravest eaters.
Hongeo is made from skates which have no bladder or kidney. They treat waste in the body by permeating through the skin in the form of uric acid. That’s why Skates need to be eaten raw and fresh. However, Koreans prefer another way of eating.
They leave dozens of fresh skates piled up in the fridge. After a month, the fish will have a distinct flavor, similar to the smell of the toilet. When the stench reaches the most horrible level, the fish is brought out and cut into pieces to eat.
When the fish is fermented, uric acid in their skin turns into ammonia (like the smell of urine). This sting will cling to you for hours after eating hongeo, as the smell hides on clothes, skin and hair that make people around you feel strange.
However, for those who like this dish, the stingy fish with light and dark pink color is a real dessert. Shin Ji-woo, working in a seafood restaurant in Mokpo, said: “Many people are addicted when they smell hongeo. We don’t need to advertise, people still know we sell fermented Skate.”
The origin of the hongeo is unclear but experts say the dish was created before humans invented the refrigerator. Food can still store longer without decay. An intelligent fisherman discovers that Skates are not broken as easily as other fish. The traditional way to make hongeo is to wrap the fish in a layer of dry grass placed in a clay pot, add the hay and let it ferment for a few days.
Shin’s store has two cold storages to ferment the Skates. If you go to one of these stores, the smell of ammonia gets in your nose, your eyes and then your lungs. Initially, the Skates are placed in the first cold storage for 15 days at a temperature of 2.5 degrees Celsius and then moved to the second storage in the next 15 days at 1 degree Celsius.
Mokpo’s restaurants are the places to provide Skates for many restaurants and retail customers throughout Korea. More than 11,000 tons of hongeo are consumed each year.
The first time when eating this dish, eaters often eat with many ingredients such as red pepper sauce, salted shrimp, raw garlic, kimchi, chili salts and boiled pork. They have to close their eyes before eating the first pieces, and then shed their tears. When the dish is in the mouth, rare people can continue to chew and swallow.
Hongeo taste is as horrible as its smell. This fish is quite tough, and cartilage is hard to swallow. Joe McPherson, a cuisine blogger write about Korean cuisine said: “It’s like a straight punch to your face. Like many, I shut my mouth for the first time. Even the most delicious foods in the world to eat right after that can not fill up the horrible taste”. Surprisingly, Joe is now a fan of this dish.
According to the lovers of hongeo, it takes four trials to get addicted to this dish. Local people said that the true way of eating hongeo is to eat separately, they complained that the restaurants serve this dish along with many other things to hide the true taste.
These people also enjoy the dish in a different way, like smoking, inhaling lots of smoke with the mouth and exhale through the nose. This helps to prevent some smells and create a sense of well-being in the throat. Some Koreans say they are addicted to hongeo as smokers wish for a cigarette. A special dish with strange smell but you still definitely want to give it a try.
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