As a rule, I aim to be 100% nonjudgmental about other cultures' "weird" foods. Like, why the fuck shouldn't someone eat a roasted tarantula? I'd eat literally eight crabs right now. I would crack open their carapaces and use their own spiky toes to pick out their guts. A tarantula is basically the same thing, only SMALLER and not wet. How is that grosser? Chocolate milk is ground-up beans mixed with oily white water that squirted out of a cow's tit. Weird is relative, dummies. People gotta eat.
But just because I don't judge foods that are foreign to me doesn't mean I want to put all of them in my own personal mouth. I've watched enough Andrew Zimmern to draw certain general boundaries: animals that are still alive, intestines that still have poop in them, mugs of hot fresh blood, rotten fish redolent of urine.
This Times article on hongeo, South Korean fermented skate, didn't change my mind much on that last count. The rotten fish, usually served as sashimi, "is prized by enthusiasts for the ammonia fumes it releases, sometimes so strong they cause people's mouths to peel." Upside: With all the mouth-peelings it's like you get double the food!
"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."
..."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 Ms. Park's closest friend, Huh Eun.
But hongeo has its fierce devotees as well:
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.
...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 lacks a bladder and 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, Mr. 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.
"Hongeo can't pee, and that's where the miracle begins."
There's actually something kind of darling about that.
I'm still not eating it. LYLAS anyway, South Korea.