MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — The aroma of one of South Korea’s most popular delicacies is regularly compared to rotting garbage and filthy bathrooms. And that’s by 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’s 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’s 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.
Kang notes, in a dramatic understatement: “When it’s fermented a long time, the smell becomes deeper.”
Americans are still getting used to gentler fermented Asian foods — spicy 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,” said Shin Jin-woo, a seafood store worker in Mokpo. “There’s no need to advertise how intense the smell is. Everyone already knows.”