Did you know that about one third of all foods around the world are fermented? The practice began a really long time ago and has been carried forward because fermented foods are practical, healthy, and not to mention delicious! Back in the day a group of travelers in the Middle East stored milk in animal skins as they journeyed through the desert. The milk fermented into an alcoholic beverage called “Kumiss” and a food similar to yogurt.
Korea is home to some incredible fermented products. Kimchi is just one of many! I’ll bet that at least half of all Korean foods are left to stew in earthenware jars. Hongeo (skate fish/홍어) is one seriously fermented Korean dish and its history started with a group of travelers too.
Heuksando (Heuksan Island), located off the coast of the South Jeolla mainland, has waters rich is sea life, including skate fish. During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Japanese pirates were invading the islands around Korea. In the effort to protect the people, the dynasty forced islanders to move to the mainland. The fishermen from Heuksando packed up their belongings and started out on the 5 day journey from Heuksando to Yeongsanpo (Yongsan Port). They brought a variety of fish with them, but it soon spoiled save the skate fish, which was preserved. The fishermen ate the fish and enjoyed the sharp tangy taste of the fermented skate. This delicacy was created completely by accident. The people of South Jeolla then began serving hongeo and it became a popular dish eaten on special occasions and at parties throughout the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties.
Today hongeo is still an important food in all of Jeollado, both the north and south, and it is remains a delicacy. In Jeollado, fermented skate is prepared for big ceremonies and holidays. Hongeo is a mark of a special and well planned event. Without hongeo, Jeollado people feel like there is nothing to eat at the party.
It is also rare and expensive because the skate fish does not grow or reproduce quickly. In fact, it is listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Korean skate fish, found off the coast of South Jeolla, is usually mottled skate fish and costs around 100,000won for a 4 person dinner plate. Korea is one of the largest skate fish consumers in the world, so the country now imports skate from Chile to help accommodate for demand. Chilean skate fish is less expensive and costs about 60,000won for a 4 person dinner plate.
The Fermentation Process
Skate fish is a member of the shark family and looks like a small sting-ray. It is flat with a kite shaped body. It has no bones, merely cartilage. The skate fish does not urinate like other fish. It passes uric acid through its skin. In Korea the fish is placed raw into an earthen clay pot and left at room temperature for a few days. Afterwards the uric acid drenching the skin produces ammonia which prevents the fish from rotting. The ammonia causes good and bad bacteria to grow. The good bacteria eventually kills the bad bacteria. Fermented skate is said to be over 100 times healthier than yogurt for its natural probiotic. I am not sure how the experts figured that figure out, but regardless of exact numbers, it is a healthy food.
The ammonia also produces a terribly strong, overpowering smell that many find intolerable. The JoongAng Daily called the fish “not for the weak of stomach”, although the ammonia makes the food alkaline (basic) so it in fact settles an upset digestive system. Others find the texture worse than the pungent smell and harsh taste. The cartilage is not removed when it’s prepared, so it has a tough grisly consistency that is difficult to chew through. Although most people struggle to enjoy hongeo, those that can get past the pungent odor and unpleasant texture say the fish becomes addictive. People often have intense cravings for hongeo and develop a taste for it.
There are a few ways to serve hongeo including raw with kimchi or grilled. It is also customarily eaten as Hongeo Samhap (삼합). Samphap translates to “harmonious trinity”. The dish is bossam (boiled pork belly/보쌈), old kimchi and hongeo. The three creates a “harmonious” combination of flavors and cuts down the sharpness of the hongeo.
There are a few theories about how this trinity came to be. One theory is that pork rots easily while skate becomes fermented by the heavily saturated ammonia. When the ammonia from the skate fish mixes in the stomach it kills the bad germs from the pork. A long time ago when food was scarce Koreans were able to save old pork by eating it with hongeo.
Another theory is that in the old days skate fish was expensive as it remains today. People could not afford to eat an entire meal of skate fish, so they paired it with pork and kimchi. The three foods were enough to be a filling meal and the combination happened to go well together.
The final theory is that during one bad storm hundreds of years ago some fishermen from South Jeolla stayed overnight at the nearest port town. The weather was terrible and it was too far for them to head all the way back to their home villages. They had fermented skate and kimchi aboard the ship. They brought the food to their lodging where the landlady was serving bossam. They ate their skate and her bossam together wrapped in kimchi. Everyone agreed that it tasted delicious and thus the tradition began.
Hongeo and hongeo samhap is also often served with makgeolli. This pairing is called Hongtak (홍탁). The makgeolli works similarly to the pork belly with the hongeo. It breaks down the horrific scent from the fish and makes it easier to eat. As well, hongtak is considered to be an especially healthy meal because it consists of three fermented foods, hongeo, kimchi and makgeolli.
My boss suggested I write about hongeo but I have never tried it. I am a big fish and seafood person. However the thought of eating a grisly food that smells worse than an outhouse, doesn’t exactly wet my appetite. It’s not even popular among young Koreans and it certainly isn’t on foreigners’ favorite food lists. Nonetheless, it is about time to test it out. The staff at WorkNPlay headed to Yongsangang (영산강) near Nambu Terminal in Seocho-gu. We ordered samhap, the infamous trinity and a bottle of makgeolli. The meal consisted of a large plate of hongeo, a large plate of bossam and a mound of kimchi. It came with various fermented vegetables, a few sauces and raw garlic and hot peppers to add to the samhap.
My boss poured the makgeolli and then showed me how to prepare the combination. First, take a piece of kimchi, and then place a slice of bossam on top. Dip the hongeo in salty spices and place it on top of the pork. Add some samjang (bean paste/쌈장) or tohajeot (salty shrimp sauce/토하젓) to the pile along with a garlic or hot pepper morsel. Once it’s assembled, it’s time to eat!
I was nervous and I giggled like a school girl before shoving the whole thing into my mouth. The first thing I noticed was the texture, which was chewy and dense. Then the taste hit me. The taste was more like a feeling than a distinctive flavor. It reminded me of wasabi just in a stronger form. There is a slight burning sensation as the hongeo clears your nasal passages. The kimchi and bossam immensely help to dilute the powerful kick of the hongeo. The feeling intensified as I continued to chew, but it never became unbearable. I took a sip of makgeolli right after I swallowed and it too cut the burn. My eyes never watered, I didn’t cough and I kept it all down. I’ll dare say that I liked it. Hongeo is nowhere near the grossest food I have ever tried and I would easily eat it again.
It is important to go to a good hongeo place. If the hongeo is not cut thinly or fermented properly, it will not be a positive experience. I recommend the restaurant in Seocho-gu as the food is prepared extremely well, the atmosphere is clean and I didn’t leave smelling like a toilet bowl.
Although hongeo is a winter food that originates from South Jeolla, it can be found all year around all over Korea. I have listed a few places in Seoul that are known for their excellent hongeo. Since it’s an expensive dish, ask your boss to treat you for this special meal out!
Address: 1603-69 Seocho-dong, seocho-gu, Seoul
Directions: Take the orange line 3 to Nambu Terminal Station (남부타미날역). Take exit 2 and walk straight. It’s about 200m up on your left. Look for the sign that will point you where to go.
This is the restaurant I went to with my coworkers. It is famous for Korean hongeo and is well known in the Gangnam and Seocho areas.
Address: 148 Gweonnong-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Directions: Take the orange line 3 to Jongno 3 Ga Station (종로3가역). Walk straight from exit 7 until you get to JongMyo (종묘). Turn left at JongMyo and walk straight until you see the restaurant. It should be on your left.
This restaurant is famous because it was mentioned in Sikgaek. Sikgaek is a famous cartoon where the main character goes around trying new foods in great restaurants. At this place, the hongeo has been fermented for over 20 years!
Address: 157 Naeja-dong, Jongro-gu, Seoul
Directions: Take the orange line 3 to Gyeongbukgung Station (경복궁역). Take exit 7 and walk straight.
This restaurant was the late president Kim Daejoong’s favorite place to eat. Everyone who enjoys food from Nam Island (Namdo) off the Southern coast knows this restaurant because it has recreated the taste and flavor of Namdo.
In my quest to know everything about Hongeo, I stumbled upon some videos of people, foreigners and Koreans, tasting Hongeo. The general consensus is that the fish isn’t good. In one video by Hard Korea, the host describes it, “I gotta tell you it’s nasty” and one competitor says it’s “The most disgusting food in the world”. The people in these videos certainly don’t develop a fermented skate fish addiction, but maybe they just need to give it another shot!
Here is a video of Alex Zimmerman, the host of Bizarre Foods, trying hongeo. His reaction didn’t help me get psyched up to eat it, but he does give a nice background about the food.
This young lad struggles to eat hongeo but finally manages to get it down with his friends’ encouragement. He actually likes it in the end.
A group of foreigners and a few Koreans head out to try Hongeo. They made some videos about their experiences. In this segment, a foreign guy does not enjoy his hongeo experience.
Nick and Rob try hongeo. Nick does pretty well but Rob can’t even get it down.
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.