The aroma of one of South Korea’s most popular delicacies is regularly compared to rotting garbage and filthy bathrooms, and that is by its fans.
The unusual dish is typically made by taking dozens of fresh skate, a cartilage-rich fish that looks like a stingray, stacking them up in a walk-in refrigerator and waiting — up to a month in some cases.
“You know when it’s done by the smell,” said Kang Han-joo, co-owner of a seafood store in the bustling fish market of Mokpo, a port city on the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula, a region that is considered the food’s spiritual home.
As Kang spoke, he sliced small, stinking, glistening dark-pink fish steaks with a large knife and laid them in plastic foam boxes for shipment to customers around South Korea.
The smell of the fish, called hongeo in Korean and usually eaten uncooked, is unmistakable, unavoidable and a deal-breaker for many. A profound, pungent stink of ammonia radiates from the animal after it has been ripening for weeks.
First-timers often squeeze their eyes shut as they chew. Tears stream down the cheeks. The throat constricts with the effort of swallowing.
“When it’s fermented a long time, the smell becomes deeper,” Kang said in a dramatic understatement.
Americans are still getting used to gentler fermented Asian foods — Korean kimchi and Japanese miso, for example — yet many South Koreans claim a love, an addiction even, for this extreme form of fermentation.
Restaurants specializing in the fish can be found throughout the country. One online hongeo appreciation society boasts more than 1,300 members.
“Some people start to crave it as soon as they smell the ammonia... There’s no need to advertise how intense the smell is. Everyone already knows,” said Shin Jin-woo, a seafood store worker in Mokpo.
Shin’s store has two fermentation refrigerators. Walk into one and a blast of ammonia burns the eyes, the nose and sinuses, the tongue, throat and lungs.
Skate are fermented up to 15 days in the first refrigerator, where the temperature is 2.5?C and up to another 15 days in the second at 1?C. Shops in Mokpo custom-ferment the fish and ship the results to restaurants and hongeo fans around South Korea.
The vast majority of the more than 11,000 tonnes of hongeo consumed in the country comes not from South Korean-caught fish, but from cheaper frozen imports. Shop owners thaw and clean the imported fish, which can cost up to five times less than the local version, and place the hongeo in refrigerators to ferment.
Hongeo’s history is murky, but it emerged in the days before refrigeration, when food that could keep for a long time without rotting was prized. Someone — maybe a fisherman on a long voyage or a clever, hungry or desperate farmer — discovered that skate did not spoil as easily as other fish and a dish was born.
Shop owners say the traditional method of making hongeo is to put the fish on a bed of hay in a clay pot, pile more hay on top and leave it.
Learning to love, or at least tolerate, what many consider the smelliest fish in Asia takes perseverance. Fans commonly say that if you try it four times, you will be hooked. Non-fans may be mystified by how anyone could meet that threshold.
“It’s a freaking punch in the face... Like everyone else, I gagged the first time,” said Joe McPherson, the founder of ZenKimchi, a Korean food blog, and an eventual devotee of the fish.