Elwood 5566

One Word – Vile!

Posted in fish, Food and Drink, seafood by 노강호 on January 3, 2012

the garden of a traditional Korean restaurant

Even for westerners with eclectic palates who enjoy flitting between the spicy and tantalizing subtleties of Thai, Indian, Mexican and Chinese food, a Korean specialty can chuck a spanner in the works. Of course, most of our knowledge of such cuisines has been doctored and what comprises their menu has been selected to appeal to our tastes. Chinese food in the UK is nearly always Cantonese or Peking and the enormous silk worm cocoon sautéed with scorpion, a cuisine typical of the Gobi region of China, is not likely to appear on the menu of your local takeaway.  I’ve never seen the boiled duck embryo, khai khao, cooked alive and served with the shell intact, in my local Thai restaurant and some of the food I ate in India I doubt appears on any menu outside the country itself.

Korea has a number of foods which cause a foreigner, especially those accustomed to European traditions, to stifle a retch. Dog meat is perhaps the most infamous and is likely to shock us with as much revulsion as Koreans find at the thought of eating rabbit. And if a westerner gags at the idea of sushi they are likely to do far worse if faced with sashimi (known in Korea as ‘hoe’ – 회) against which sushi is positively tame. Anything which crawls, swims, floats, buries itself in the mud or simply hangs about on rocks, is fair game for the sashimi platter where it is usually eaten raw. If raw fish isn’t enough to empty your stomach, there is variety of raw meats, the tamest of which is thinly sliced beef steak but venturing into the Klingon domain are raw tripe and liver. However, a few cooked meats, intestine and boiled lung, are likely to repulse a healthy hunger after which steamed silkworm cocoon or pan-fried grasshopper seem almost civilised.

Over the New Year, I ate at two traditional seafood restaurants. The first specialised in a particular kind of clam and the entire menu, apart from side dishes, focused on this local delicacy. I wasn’t too happy when the hors d’oeuvre arrived; an unceremonious bowl of clams which had been warmed rather than cooked, and hence the shells required prizing open with a tool I’m sure I’ve seen in an electricians tool-bag.  Have you ever been dumped on by a passing pigeon? Once prized open, the clams’ innards were just that; a messy splurge of white and brown pudding that dripped onto the paper table-cloth like diarrhoea. I silently cursed my Korean friend and prepared to stifle the retch reflex that was sure to follow but surprisingly, they were very delicious. The rest of the meal contained clams in one form or another – in pancakes, as sweet and sour, skewered, in a soup, and in the sauce of a bibimbap.


painful on the eye but pleasing on the tongue

My evening delight was in an enchanting traditional restaurant in a small outhouse. Here I was served the entire gamut of food at which the European usually cringes. Apart from insects and dog, there was a selection of all the nautical nasties, sea squirt – which resembles an acned, bulbous boil (멍게), ‘dog dick’  (개불 – Urechis unicinctus) – a slimy type of spoon worm which has no English name, a type of shellfish with the texture of slightly meaty, raw cauliflower, raw squid, the unpleasant orphaned testicle thing known as mideodek (미더덕 – styela clava) which many Koreans hate. Other delicacies, less shocking, included raw oyster and I even managed some raw sliced beef. Along with a fine spread of kimchies and as a veteran of Korean food, I managed to eat with apparent pleasure.

more still to come

Then I picked up what looked like raw tuna, which I actually like, and slipped it onto my tongue. I hadn’t even shut my mouth when there was a sensation of something very unpleasant. ‘Can you smell it?’ my friend asked. ‘Ugh,’ I managed to mutter without moving my teeth for fear of stirring whatever was on my tongue. I wanted to swallow it but it had bones, cartilaginous bones which demanded chomping and I could smell what seemed like neat ammonia invading my nasal passage. ‘Urgh!’ I gagged again. I couldn’t spit it out, that really isn’t an option with Koreans and though I scanned the ‘banquet’ fom some friendly food that might speed it into my stomach, everything was both raw and slimy.  It was truly like a mouthful of smelling salts and my eyes were beginning to water. ‘Ugh, ugh! ‘I gagged as I furtively eyed the table from the dish of raw oyster on one plate, the messy sea squirt on another to the slivers of sliced dog dick. In the end I was rescued by a bowl of seaweed soup from which I slurped before swallowing the entire slice of fish, unchomped cartilage as well.

raw ray fish (홍어) – revolting!

I’ve eaten dried ray fish in sauce and really enjoyed it but fresh (홍어) and uncooked it is the most revolting thing I’ve ever eaten; worse than all the crud of the sea, the insects, dog and probably worse than boiled lung – which I don’t ever intend eating! If you want to eat something truly awful, something that makes even live octopus tame, this is your baby.


Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.


Food to Put Hair on Your Chest (Bathhouse Ballads Sept 2010)

As Tasty as it Looks (Mideodeok). (Bathhouse Ballads Sept  2010)

Monday Market – Sea Squirt (멍게) (Bathhouse Ballads May 2010)


12 Responses

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  1. wetcasements said, on January 3, 2012 at 6:35 am

    I’m pretty sure 홍어 is fermented (which is a nice way of saying, it’s intentionally left to rot). That accounts for the ammonia-like smell.

    I’ve never tried it myself.

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on January 6, 2012 at 1:40 am

      Yes, I wondered that but I’m not sure. I did read, while doing a little research, that when fresh it shouldn’t smell.

  2. snoopcookie said, on January 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Why is Rabbit repugnant to Koreans?! You have me really curious now! 🙂

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on January 6, 2012 at 1:39 am

      I know Koreans who have eaten rabbit but most of my students express shock and generally insist it’s a pet.

  3. Bianca the Skydiver said, on January 3, 2012 at 11:11 am

    I’m blase about dog but there’s no way I’d try 홍어
    Incidentally Iceland has Hakarl

  4. Roboseyo said, on January 4, 2012 at 1:16 am

    I’ve tried it as a side dish, but never as a main dish.. though I have a friend who swears if you have it as the entree, it’s strangely addictive.

  5. bing said, on January 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    I can almost gag as well with the description. raw fish is not appealing but it always depend on what type. ray fish is good when it’s cooked with coconut milk with spices and pepper.

    dog menus are popular in some parts of our country. tried once and vowed not to have them anymore.

  6. rob said, on January 12, 2012 at 3:42 am

    I once read an article about a book by an ex-British POW from the Second World War on his experiences of being taken to a prison camp in Japan. He wrote that the conditions weren’t too bad considering the times and the conditions the locals were also having to live under, but the one thing that was very difficult to handle was that they were fed fish that had a very strong ammonia taste (originally they thought the guards were trying to poison them). I have wondered if this could have been 홍어, in which case it’s a bit ironic that it’s now an expensive delicacy. Unfortunately I don’t have any references to the book or article.

    • 努江虎-노강호 said, on January 15, 2012 at 2:37 am

      Interesting. Apparently, it doesn’t smell when it is fresh and is therefore deliberately allowed to stagnate. Yummy!

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