‘Hongeo samhap’ (홍어삼합) refers to the combination of fermented hongeo skate, kimchi and steamed pork. (Mokpo City Government)

Hongeo samhap’ (홍어삼합) refers to the combination of fermented hongeo skate, kimchi and steamed pork. (Mokpo City Government)

By Kim Eun-youngKang Gahui and Kim Young Shin
Mokpo | Nov. 29, 2018

China’s stinky tofu, a deep-fried fermented dish, Sweden’s surstromming, or salted and fermented Baltic sea herring, and France’s vieux-Boulogne, cheese made from cow’s milk and washed in beer, all have something in common: a nasty smell but heavenly taste. A deserved addition to this list is Korea’s hongeo (홍어회), or fermented skate.

The stinging sensation and a stench reeking like ammonia coming from an old toilet drive many away from this delicacy. Once hongeo gets inside a diner’s mouth, however, the cool burn of menthol hits the nostrils. By chewing the flesh on a softened bone, a sweet and savory flavor entertains the taste buds, helping this extreme fish dish snap up the love of many gourmets.

The origin of hongeo dates back to the late Goryeo Dynasty (918 C.E.-1392). Residents of Heuksando Island were forced to move inland to Naju, Jeollanam-do Province, because of frequent invasions by Japan. They left their hometown with their regional specialty skate and needed more than two weeks to make their trip. This, however, resulted in the fermentation of the fish they carried, thus creating a mouthwatering dish in the process.

How does this literally stinky fish command such wide appeal? The answer is fermentation, a process in which microorganism activity changes the flavor, scent and nutrition of the food.

A saying goes that meat and fruit taste best just before they spoil. When beef is aged, the natural enzymes in the meat break down protein and enhance flavor. Similarly hongeo gains a richer taste since it is aged for a month, though also accompanied by a foul ammonia-like odor.

The pleasant savory taste, better known as umami, is often found in fermented foods. As one of the five basic flavors, the taste makes people crave more and more, and perhaps this explains the popularity of hongeo.

Joseon era scholar Jeong Yak-jeon (정약전, 1758-1816), in his book “Jasaneobo” (자산어보), a record of marine life in Korea, wrote that the mucus generated during the fermentation of skate boosts health and digestion.

So for the sake of better taste and nutrition, Koreans ferment the fish. The only drawback is the nasty odor that spreads even onto clothes.

Though many are driven away by the extreme smell of hongeo, those brave enough to withstand the odor can expect sublime taste.