“Oooh they have Korean-style fermented skate,” my friend Chef Sung Kim said as she perused the menu at Jeunju in Mokja Golmok or Eater’s Alley, which surrounds the Murray Hill LIRR station. “I’ve never had it,” she said of the delicacy hongeo-hoe.
I’d been eating at the homestyle Korean restaurant ever since my pal John Choe turned me on to it and thought it was high time to turn my posse of food loving friends on to Chef Eunhae Bae’s wonderful takes on samgyetang, the Korean ginseng chicken soup that’s renowned as a tonic during the dog days of summer, and gamjatang, a hearty pork spine stew. Fermented fish was the furthest thing from my mind that summer evening, but not being a group to shy away from culinary challenges we took Sung’s lead and ordered the hongeo-hoe. After all, how bad could it be?
Hongeo sahm-hop looks innocent enough. Slabs of cold pork belly, cabbage kimchi, raw garlic, green hot peppers, surround a smallish heap of translucent skate flesh. As the person who organized the eat-up, I sampled the delicacy first, taking a bit of cabbage and layering on pork belly, skate, garlic, and pepper, and than swabbing the little package through some fermented shrimp sauce and miso. The first thing I noticed as I brought the hongeo sahm-hop ssam to my lips was an intense aroma, not of fish, but rather ammonia, essence of well-used kitty litter. The taste was in line with the smell, with the added unpleasantness of a piquancy that some mistook for spiciness.
Between nine of us we consumed about two tablespoons of this decidedly acquired taste. I did try it a second time that night. This time I used chopticks; there was no way I was picking up that nastiness with my hands again.
“Even with all of those strong flavors, there was an overwhelming presence of the fermented skate,” Kim recalls. “Once it went down, I could smell the ammonia in every breath I took for a good 5 to 10 minutes,” she says adding that she’s game to try it a second time. I don’t think there will be a third time for me.
When I got home that night I watched the infamous Korean revenge flick Oldboy. Guess which experience was more disturbing?
Jeonju Korean Restaurant, 40-11 150th St. Flushing, 718-939-0434