Hongeo 홍어 – The Hardest Thing to Swallow in Korea

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Some of my most adventurous friends, Korean and not, have said that the one food they cannot eat without initiating gag reflexes is Hongeo 홍어. Look at the picture above. It seems harmless enough, if you’re familiar with sashimi.

What’s so scary about it?

I decided to find out. One of my ajumma friends (yes, I have ajumma friends) invited me to hang out at a place that specializes in this. She had already started when I got off work, so she had to tell the taxi driver how to get there by phone, and it was difficult. The place was a shack on the winding dark roads off the busy main street. It was the type of area where the hardcore go to eat and drink. Few young people around.

I walked in, and the stench of the place hit me. Does no one clean the bathrooms? I decided to do my best to ignore the smell as I joined Mrs. Ajumma and friends.

They said that the thing to order was Samhap삼합. Pretty freakin’ expensive.

The back of the house came out with this.

There was the famous Hongeo, along with some steamed pork, some really good kimchi, and the usual condiments of raw garlic, peppers, doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and a little chojang (red pepper paste mixed with vinegar).

Here’s the lowdown. Hongeo is fermented skate. You know, skate.

(No, but those do look a little fermented.)

These skates.

Okay, fermented.

“Eww!”

I know we in the West have a natural aversion to things with the word “fermented” attached to them. But I’m willing to give anything a chance. Some of my favorite foods are fermented: cheese, beer, wine, bread, doenjang, sauerkraut.

The thing is this. Skates are similar to sharks in that they don’t pee like other animals do. They don’t have kidneys and bladders and… well, they don’t really pee. Instead, the uric acid comes out through their skin. That’s why it’s not a good idea to keep shark meat for a long time in the fridge.

I mention the similarity between skates and sharks because Iceland has an infamous dish that has similar legendary puke-inducing properties, Hákarl. Anthony Bourdain has put it on the list of worst things he’s put in his mouth. Gordon Ramsay has puked it up on television.

Then again, Ramsay pukes a lot on shows, making me think he has a weak stomach.

When both shark and skate are fermented, the uric acid intensifies into ammonia. It is a substance that we are hardwired to gag upon.

I wrapped it in kimchi and condiments and tried it.

Yes, it has a strong ammonia component. If you don’t breathe, the hongeo itself is salty with a slight rubbery texture. But you have to breathe, and breathe you will–you will regret. It’s like licking a urinal.

I ate two of them and took a break with some good country makkoli.

The owner came by and asked questions. They don’t see foreigners too much in those there parts. He was happy that a foreigner was making a foray into this forbidden cuisine. Not only was I the only foreigner there, my ajumma group were the only women in there. This was strictly grizzled middle-aged man food. It’s food you eat to prove how tough you are.

The owner told us that there’s a technique to eating it. You breath in through your mouth and out through your nose. I tried it a couple of times, and it hit me why the men liked it so much.

They’re getting high off this shit.

I was getting a definite non-alcoholic buzz off the rotten fish. It tasted horrible, but I craved more. I ended up eating around half of it, all the time saying, “I can’t believe I’m eating this.”

After a while, though my stomach wouldn’t let me take any more. I stumbled, or rather, floated out of the bar, said goodbye to my friends and headed home.

It was in the dead of winter, so I was wearing my furry parka. I found that fur, fake or not, tends to absorb odors. I walked into the apartment, and Eun Jeong greeted me.

“Joe, did you have a good… oh, you smell bad!”

“I tried Hongeo tonight.”

“Really?”

She took another whiff.

“Now, I’m hungry.”

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23 thoughts on “Hongeo 홍어 – The Hardest Thing to Swallow in Korea”

  1. hah, i tried hongaw for the 2nd time last weekend (against my better judgement) only to re-confirmed that it tastes like ass. But thanks for the explanation! I had no idea skates don’t pee. And thanks for the tip… I just might try it again with that breathing technique…

    Reply
  2. Yep, yep and yep. Probably the weirdest taste I’ve ever experienced. Sort of like marinating
    a soft cloth in a freshly cleaned toilet (that has a new freshener tab put in). I kept thinking
    “pine sol.” I didn’t experience the high you’re talking about, but that might have been
    because I took it with Makoli as well.
    I didn’t hate it and I love asking Koreans if they like it (older generation likes it/younger
    generation hates it). However, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again. I would never pay
    for it.

    Reply
  3. I’m with you: “fermented” is not a problematic description. “Smells and tastes like urine,” however, certainly is.

    I make an effort to try every food and drink at least twice. Sometimes, with new flavors, the initial taste is so shocking that you can’t actually pay attention to the food, so you’ve got to give it second go-round when you’re actually prepared for what’s coming. Even after going a couple rounds with Hongeo, though, I have yet to develop a taste for the stuff. Good on you for getting through as much as you did.

    Reply
  4. I was in Korea for 3.5 years and I never heard of this stuff. I guess I wasn’t hanging out with enough adjummas.

    Worse than Bondagi?

    Have you tried the Chinese dish ‘cho dofu’ (fermented tofu)?

    Vile, vile, vile.

    Reply
  5. I had some in Busan recently, and it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t _good_ and it was definitely ‘urine-tasting’, but it wasn’t that bad. I had a few pieces of it throughout the meal.

    However, I can imagine not all 홍어 is the same. Perhaps I had some better-quality 홍어 or I don’t mind the taste as much.

    Reply
  6. It looks so innocuous, and peaceful, and pleasant. You’d never guess that it’s actually smelly fish. The South East Asian smelly fish dishes all have the decency to look like they’re going to hurt!

    Reply
  7. Right!? Totally not as bad as I expected. I would eat it over bondeggi any day. And it does give you a rush of sorts.

    Reply
  8. hahah.. sounds like an experience i would like to have.. but have never been privileged.. i looked at the stone pot ad on this site and came to the conclusion i could never afford it.. how do poor Koreans buy it.. $183.00 down from over $230.. i would love to own one but its out of my price range.. love Korean food..

    Reply

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