Hongeo is a bizarre South Korean dish with a pungent aroma that most people describe as a mix of dirty public toilet and wet laundry left untended for days.

Made from skate, a bottom-dwelling ray fish, Hongeo is considered by far South Korea’s smelliest food. It’s so stinky that many South Koreans wouldn’t come near it, let alone put in their mouths. However, its many fans can’t get enough of the ammonia fumes it emanates and swear that once you get used to it, it’s impossible to replace with anything else. But feasting on this stinky delicacy comes with a social cost, as the smell tends to linger in the mouth as well as on clothes. In fact, hongeo-specialized restaurants advise customers to seal their jackets in plastic bags before eating, and spray them with deodorant before leaving.

“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,” one South Korean man told the New York Times.

“I’ve eaten dog, durian and bugs, but this is still the most challenging food I’ve ever eaten,” food blogger Joe McPherson said. “It’s like licking a urinal.”

The smell and taste of Hongeo is closely tied to one of the things that makes the skate fish special, specifically the way it urinates. You see, the skate doesn’t pee like other animals, it releases urine through its skin, and that’s exactly the stuff hongeo chefs marinate the meat in for about a month in order to obtain the stomach-churning delicacy.

Hongeo is definitely an acquired taste, but it’s not exactly an obscure dish in South Korea. According to NPR, 11,000 tons of hongeo are consumed in the Asian country every year, and southern cities like Mokpo are famous for their hongeo restaurants.

Sue Ahn, a prominent South Korean food journalist, says there is a proper way to eat hongeo and getting it down easier until you get used to it.

“You have to pick up the hongeo, breathe through your mouth, then out your nose. After that, you eat it,” she says, adding that after trying it at least four times you’ll get hooked by “that minty feeling in the back of your throat many say is addictive”.

The history of hongeo can be traced back to the 14th century, back when Japanese pirates patrolled the South Seas, forcing the residents of Heuksan Island to move up the Yeongsan River and take their fare with them. They noticed that all their fish eventually went bad, but not the skate, which, left to ferment in its own urine was naturally preserved. It eventually became a regional specialty in South Korea’s southwest provinces of North and South Jeolla.

Interestingly, not only is hongeo’s pungent smell almost guaranteed to trigger your gag reflex, its chewy flesh and crunchy cartilage also make it hard to swallow. It’s so bad that the late Anthony Bourdain put it on the list of worst things he’s ever put in his mouth.

 

 

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