HEUKSAN ISLAND, South Korea — South Korea has a generous list of foods some find hard to swallow, among them boiled silkworm pupae and live baby octopuses, which have been known to attach their suction cups to the roofs of diners’ mouths in what appear to be desperate bids to escape.
But fermented skate from this southern island tops them all. By far South Korea’s smelliest food, the fish, called hongeo, is described by lovers and detractors alike as releasing odors reminiscent of an outhouse. Served most often as chewy pink slabs of sashimi, hongeo is prized by enthusiasts for the ammonia fumes it releases, sometimes so strong they cause people’s mouths to peel.
“I used to think that people could not possibly eat this stuff unless they were crazy,” said Park Jae-Hee, a 48-year-old marketing executive. “But like smelly blue cheese, it has no replacement once you fall in love with it.”
It is easy, of course, to poke fun at other nations’ cuisines. But some South Koreans who are otherwise fiercely proud of their fiery, often odoriferous foods, like kimchi, admit to being repelled by hongeo and baffled by its rising popularity.
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“I can’t understand who in the world would pay to eat a rotten fish in a restaurant that smells like an uncleaned public restroom,” said Park’s closest friend, Huh Eun.
Even those who swoon over its exotic taste cheerily admit their passion comes with some social costs. A subway ride after a meal of hongeo can be isolating, with fellow riders sometimes casting furtive glances and sidling away. Owners of restaurants that specialize in hongeo advise customers to seal their jackets in plastic bags before the meal and offer to spray them with deodorant afterward.
“I’ve eaten dog, durian and bugs, but this is still the most challenging food I’ve ever eaten,” said Joe McPherson, the American founder of the Korean food blog ZenKimchi, who has become a self-appointed ambassador for Korean cuisine. “It’s like licking a urinal.”
The lowly fish, once just a regional specialty in the southwest provinces of North and South Jeolla, followed the migration of rural workers during South Korea’s industrial boom in the 20th century, with restaurants specializing in hongeo opening to serve growing populations of scattered Jeolla natives.
Still, it took a while to catch on, thwarted not only by its formidable odor and limited supply, but also by the regional prejudices that have dogged Jeolla, where Heuksan Island is. During decades of military dictatorships, the country’s elites, often from rival Gyeongsang province, were accused of ostracizing Jeolla and fomented a bias that has outlived authoritarian rule.
Then, about 10 years ago, a free-trade agreement with Chile helped wear down resistance to Jeolla’s signature fish dish, flooding the market with relatively cheap Chilean hongeo and inspiring new restaurants to open.
Among the legions of the fish’s fans, the velvety texture of frozen hongeo liver melting on the tongue with a pinch of salt and red pepper has been compared to foie gras. The smell, to their minds, is most of the appeal, coupled with a tingling in the mouth that accompanies the hit of ammonia. Gourmets say a proper hongeo dinner must end with hongeo soup, steaming with the smell of boiling ammonia.
Despite the dish’s newfound popularity, the center of hongeo worship remains here on Heuksan Island, off the country’s southwestern tip. The bottom-feeding fish has long been the foundation of the island’s economy, and fishing boats head out several times a month to nearby waters where hongeo feed and lay eggs.
Islanders say the fish first gained a following here because of a quirk of biology. In the days before refrigeration, the fishermen’s forebears learned that hongeo was the only fish they could ship to the mainland 60 miles away without salting. The hongeo, lacking a bladder, excretes uric acid through its skin. As it ferments, it oozes ammonia that keeps it from going bad.
“Hongeo can’t pee, and that’s where the miracle begins,” said Kim Young-Chang, 77, the owner of a hongeo restaurant here. A true believer in the fish’s power, Kim rattled off a list of health benefits he believes come from eating it. “I have never seen anyone having stomach trouble after eating hongeo,” he proclaimed.
Among Heuksan residents and their neighbors across the water in mainland Jeolla, hongeo has long been an integral part of local tradition and lore. Wedding parties are considered incomplete if hongeo is not served. And natives point out that the dissident-turned-president Kim Dae-jung, perhaps Jeolla’s most famous son, was so homesick for the fish that politicians made sure to bring him fresh stocks during the years of military rule when he was in exile.
The fish has also helped rejuvenate this island of 2,200, once a major port. The town had declined in recent decades, as boats with refrigerated storage could bring their catch farther and found less use for the island as an offshore trading post.
But with hongeo’s growing popularity, residents began pitching the island as a tourist attraction where people could sample authentic “Heuksan-do hongeo.”