The smell of the fish, called hongeo in Korean and usually eaten uncooked, is unmistakable, unavoidable and a deal-breaker for many. A profound, pungent stink of ammonia radiates from the animal after it’s been ripening for weeks. First-timers often squeeze their eyes shut as they chew. When it’s fermented a long time, the smell becomes deeper.
Americans are still getting used to gentler fermented Asian foods – spicy Korean kimchi and Japanese miso, for example – yet many South Koreans claim a love, an addiction even, for this extreme form of fermentation. Restaurants specializing in the fish can be found throughout the country. One online hongeo appreciation society boasts more than 1,300 members.