Skatefish, or hong-uh in Korean, is a traditional delicacy with a great deal of notariety among the foreinger community of Mokpo. I (Mike) have eaten skatefish twice now; the first time by accident, the second time more or less by design. I can’t account for this lack of proper judgement, but the story may prove amusing, and a warning to those of you planning a culinary tour of Korea.
Skatefish has a lot of things going against it. First of all, like most flat fish, it’s a bottom feeding scavenger, most comfortable lying around in the muck of the ocean, away from all the cool fish. Second, the skatefish has no kidneys. You’d think this would doom it to blood poisoning, but it’s adapted itself in a clever way: All urine gets processed within the muscles of its ‘wings.’
The wings, not coincidentally, are the parts of the skatefish people eat. And, because they are soaked in urine, and the skate is fermented from 2 to 10 days, the flesh gets a pungent, out-housey scent that sends most people running for the exit. This, oddly, doesn’t keep skate from being eaten in the west. Western cookbooks simply advise that if the skate has not been processed properly, the meat will smell strongly of ammonia, and should be discarded. I suspect Korean cookbooks have the opposite warning.
I can’t really justify my eating something that smells of ammonia except by saying, that 1) I did not order the skatefish either time and 2) I don’t smell very well.
The first eating was at a teahouse that recently opened near Akasha’s school. We wandered in, and the jovial hospitality of the owners made me excessively polite, and I ate whatever was offered. (Akasha does not succumb to this kind of pressure. She is smart enough to avoid skatefish at all costs.)
The second time, I was at a teacher’s dinner, another situation where politeness is important. It was a restaurant where they specialized in raw seafood, such as the Hong-uh, and a raw blue crab that was soaked in soy sauce and garlic, hacked to pieces and set out on a ceramic tray. So it seemed only polite to give the skatefish another try.
You may be wondering why I put something that smelled so bad anywhere near my mouth. But I was wondering the opposite, how something that I had eaten didn’t smell so bad at all. So it was here at the teacher’s dinner that I finally held a piece up to my nose, and learned, once again, that my nose is pretty much useless for long-range smelling. An inch from my nose, the smell hit me. I teared up, my eyes watering, and I nearly ran from the restaurant.
My co-teacher showed me a trick, though. It’s an ancient method of coping with the ammonia smell. You eat the hong-uh in layers, with sliced pork and kim chi on either side. This provides a nice ‘sandwiching’ effect, where the sweetness of the pork and spice of the kimchi can contain the smell until it reaches your mouth. And, finally, you sense a paradox of skatefish: It doesn’t taste that bad. It’s kind of sweet and delicate. It’s almost a shame the smell turns people off.
Or is it? Because there’s one last problem that even buffering cannot solve. Skates are related to sharks, so they have no true bones. They do have cartilage, however, and the cartilage is not removed before serving. This means the skatefish is like chewing on, say, fingernails, or velcro tabs, or fish-flavored bubble wrap.
I tried to chew the skate for several minutes, but it did not yield to my weak, western jaws. Finally, because politeness only goes so far, I spit the skatefish discretely into a napkin and set it near my plate for disposal. I felt a bit like when I was eight years old, hiding the peas under the edge of my plate so I could leave the table. So, my adventures with skatefish have ended. I won’t be trying it again.