Letter from Anyang: Hongeo
There is my life before September 29, 2008, and my life after. Two things happened on that day: 1) I met Jennifer Flinn, and 2) in a totally separate incident, hongeo.
Jennifer is an American who has lived off and on in Korea for 5 years. All my Korean friends are impressed by her Korean language skills. But more importantly, Jennifer writes a bilingual food blog, fatmanseoul.com. I finally met up with her after several aborted attempts (one delay being a case of food poisoning on a mountain temple stay–more on that later). Jennifer and I both love food in that nerdy, scholarly way that most people find well, nerdy. Over bindaedok and pigs feet at a market in North Seoul, I begged Jennifer to help me with my project. I cannot tell you how happy I was that night riding the train back to Gwanak Station. I could not wait to brag to my studio friends about my great night in Seoul.
But the Seoksu Art Project was dark except for Tulbot Kim’s studio.
“Elaine, huh, Elaine. Come on, let’s go! Everybody huh going.” He was determined. “Chug and Justeen…huh…Wileeyum…huh…Mr Parg…huh, everybody…many many. Let’s go.”
We are driving somewhere on the back roads of Anyang. He begins to talk about fish. Eating fish. Fish markets. I am babbling back about the fish markets I have visited and others I wish to see. Neither of us understand each other. He keeps returning to the phrase “Fishie many many. Many many eating. Gooood taste huh. Dead smell,” and again “Veh-ri veh-ri dead smell.” I give up trying to understand his Konglish. I ride passively. He points out a building owned by Mr Hong Dae Bong and we park.
I stepped into a rustic looking place with graffitied messages for wallpaper and indeed my entire “studio family” is at the table. Everyone is laughing. Chuck and Justin squint at me and say, “Elaine, we think we’ve figured out how they get high here.”
홍어 is pronounced hong-aw (as in, open your mouth and say, “aw”). I had never heard of it until September 29 around 11:30 p.m.. Hongeo is skate. This place served fermented skate. Yes, fermented skate in all it’s forms: sashimi, fritters, steamed, dumpling-ed, even as a confection. This particular chef is a bit of a celebrity in Anyang for his hongeo.
Skates and sharks, unlike most creatures, excrete liquid waste (yes, pee) through their skin. As a result they have an incredible amount of ammonia build up in their flesh. This makes it possible to ferment it for long periods of time like 3 months or 6 months or a year. The ammonia becomes a strong part of the taste experience of the fish. Some have described the taste as akin to licking a urinal–a very clean, tasty urinal. Others say it elicits a gag reflex. I would rather think of it in terms of the strongest blue cheese or super ripe brie you have ever tasted, and crank that up to 11. I must admit that it is a very extreme, full body experience.
I tried the sashimi first. It looked like regular sliced raw fish. The texture was firmer and as I chewed it…bam, it hits me: the ammonia and burning in the back of the throat, in the back of the nose, in the front of the nose, then in the back of your eyes. One finds oneself waving ones hands at ones face. You think you are blind except that you can see. That is when someone hands you a dinged-up brass bowl of ice cold makgeolli (a milky-looking fermented rice beverage). And it is the sweetest makgeolli you have ever tasted. If you don’t freak out and puke, the experience is addictive like super-wasabi, or stinky cheese or the souped-up combo of the two. But strangely, the sensation isn’t isolated to your face, your body begins to feel it, and after a few slices, you are giddy (incidentally, none of the Koreans at the table got giddy or admitted to it). By now everyone else had tried most everything and the chef came out with special plates of food for me. The chef pointed to pictures of himself on TV. He ran somewhere and came back wearing a gold medal. I was told he taught fish fermenting at a local college. His food was extraordinary. And I was beginning to to feel seriously altered.
He took me outside to show me the banner (all in Korean) which proclaimed something about a food expo. Then inside again for another variation on the ammonia experience–perhaps the fritters. Each dish presented a new challenge to my mouth and sanity.
By now the strange chef was very excited by my presence, apparently sizing me up. About three or four dishes in, he motions for me to join him outside again. He wants me to go somewhere with him. I guess he thinks I’m worthy. Kim Tulbot decides to escort me. Chuck is perhaps worried for my safety with this strange, excited-looking man and decides to join in. That is how I crossed a big road, was lead into the now emptied out Chungung Market and around into dark alley. Half way down the alley and to our left were some roll down gates which the chef rolled up to reveal several walk-in coolers, and a washing chamber. The smell was strong, but not rotten. The sight was not what I expected. He points to an area of the floor covered with cardboard. There are a pair of rubber boots there. I slip off my shoes and slip on the knee high boots. I am staring at my feet when I realize all the Korean speakers are yelling and motioning. The chef is already in the nearest cooler. I gathered I must join him. My host is excitedly rummaging around. There is skate lining the floor. I have no choice but to step on about eight layers of slimy, fermenting skate bodies to stand inside.
I am distracted from the smell by the presentation of a large shark’s head on a hook. The metal shelves that line the walls are corroded. My new friend is digging around in plastic bins and ceramic pots mumbling to himself. He stands up proudly holding a shark body (about a meter and a half long), the mate to the head. He yells a number. It has been there for some time. He opens another ceramic pot and pulls out a smaller chunk of shark body–this one is super slimy–stringy slime trails between it and the other body parts left in the pot. It is 18 months along.
Chuck and I are thoroughly shaken, but Chuck has the presence of mind to have us pose for a picture. Then after a quick tour of the rest of the meat lockers, we are led back to the restaurant and fed fermented shark dumplings and fermented skate roe or was it liver? Whatever it was, it was on par with the best foie gras I have eaten.
Jennifer and I went back for dinner a week later. Yesterday, I videotaped a class he taught. This man, Chef Jeong will be a panelist for my Korean food seminar: “Kimchi, Jeotgal, Makgeolli” on Saturday, October 25, 2008.