Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fermented Hong-eo, an experience worth trying

One of the most difficult dishes to get used to in Korean cuisine for foreigners and even locals alike is fermented skate, or Hong-eo. Some even say that Swedish fermented herring, also notorious for its distinctive, fermented taste, is nothing compared to  Korea’s fermented skate.

The verdict is in, the hong-eo experience warrants a hung jury. 
At first I thought it made no sense to eat hong-eo (fermented skate fish), a food that smells like ammonia because its uric acid has to pass through and is ultimately stored in its flesh. 
The dish in Korean is called hongeo samhap. Hongeo means skate and samhap translates as “harmonious trinity,” referring to the three elements of the dish – fermented skate, boiled pork belly and kimchi. In Korea, for around 40,000~50,000 won, a large collection of samhap is offered.

The fermented skate at first has a foul odor that is similar to the smell of ammonia, but many Koreans say that after a while the taste of this fermented fish is addictive.
Eaten alone, raw hong-eo is repugnant, yet the triple-decker, bite-sized samhap is rather tasty; it is strangely addictive...

While the pork fat provides a bit of sweetness, Kimchi, another fermented food, neutralizes hong-eo’s magical properties. Selective parts can be dipped into a dried red pepper and salt mix.

Here are some historic facts behind Hong-eo :

The dish is said to originate from Heuksan Island in South Jeolla, where fishermen discovered the main ingredient in hongeo samhap by accident.
Heuksan Island is famous for its high-quality skate fish. During the Joseon Dynasty, the skate from Heuksan Island was often brought to other parts of the country by boat. During this process, the fishermen discovered that even after a long journey, skate was still edible and that the fermentation that took place gave the meat a great, chewy texture and a slightly stinging sensation in your mouth.
The boiled pork belly and kimchi was originally served with the fish due to the fact that the skate was costly and rare. However, food experts now say that the three ingredients are extremely complimentary, as the pork gives a heartiness to the dish while the kimchi mitigates the grease from the pork as well as accentuating the fermented taste of the skate.
During the Joseon Dynasty, hongeo samtak (the same dish but including alcohol) was a favorite dish for parties and get-togethers and was served alongside makgeolli, or Korean rice wine. The dish is still eaten most with makgeolli, which also aids in diluting the rather pungent taste of the fermented skate.

Source : Hongeo: Not for the weak of stomach

So the final question must be asked, should you try it? 
Answer: At least once. 

And for those interested, here's a video from Youtube about Hong-eo

"This is one of those foods that you can't understand how it tastes unless you actually eat it."

Skip to 3:15 to watch Andrew trying to keep it down here:

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