I had two guests on the Authentic Korean Chicken & Beer Experience last night. One of them writes books on food around the world. One food he’d written about but had never tried was fermented skate, known as hongeo 홍어 in Korea. On the way to our second stop, he saw a sign with a drawing of a skate on it and asked about it. During our second stop, I asked them both if they’d be interested in trying it before our third stop. They agreed. We went upstairs to the fermented skate place. It was run by two relatively young women, who were surprised to see us. Immediately they told us they had run out of steamed pork. I said that was fine. I told them my friends wanted to try hongeo. Their faces brightened up, and they sat us down. The aroma–no, it wasn’t an aroma–the reek of the place was already infecting everyone’s nostrils. The other guest was very worried about what she’d agreed to. We started out with some makgeolli, which she hadn’t tried before. It became her new favorite thing. They brought out the fermented skate on a bed of spicy herbs. Everyone tried it. The third guest did not like it at all. But the guest who had requested it was doing his best to learn to like it. It was a small amount, and I suggested eating it with the herbs, for they were the only things strong enough to punch out the funk of the skate.
Can you smell it?
Then the server came in with the big platter. It was a good mess of fermented stingray with some raw garlic, chilies, doenjang, and a very, very ripe and sour kimchi. The kimchi had to have been at least six months to a year old. We also had some steamed cabbage and perilla leaves for wrapping. So we started making our wraps. Well, two of us were. The third guest was enjoying her makgeolli. Now, I have trained myself over the years to tolerate hongeo. In fact, I sort of like it now. This was the first time I’d had it in years. The guest who requested it made it through five pieces before calling it quits. I’d say that was admirable.
Skate liver
Then the server came out with something special for us. “Hongeo gan 홍어간.” “Oh… my… god… Guys, we just got some skate liver. I’ve never had this before.” All three of us tried it after a dip in some salted sesame oil. And you know what? It was one of the best things I’ve had in a long time. And I mean best as in it was challenging, but it had phases of intense flavors. The first impression was creamy, like foie gras. Then it had the typical ammonia vapor. Then it went to tasting more like sea urchin. And the finish was like Spanish anchovies. This, to me, symbolizes Korean food. It’s not good with subtlety. It punches you in the face and makes you pay attention. I’m so glad we made this detour. I’ll put a map to the place below.
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