- Food Trivia: Fermented Food : Did you know that about one third of all foods around the world are fermented? The practice began a really long time ago and has been carried forward because fermented foods are practical, healthy, and not to mention delicious. Back in the day a group of travelers in the Middle East stored milk in animal skins as they journeye d through the desert. The milk fermented into an alcoholic beverage called "Kumiss" and a food similar to yogurt. Some of the famous fermented foods are Sauerkraut from Germany, Kimchi from Korea. Wines, Vinegas, Pickled Vegetables , Vanilla and even Tabasco are all products of fermentation. Vanilla is produced in Madagascar, Indonesia and various South Pacific islands. It is a dark brown pod about 20 cm in length. Vanilla is produced by fermenting the pods of the orchids of the genus vanilla. The pods are first sun dried for 24 to 36 hours and then blanched in hot water (65° C) for two to three minutes. The pods are then fermented in boxes and dried again. On the other hand, Tabasco sauce which is produced in Mexico and Guatemala is made from the chilli pods, ground into a paste and placed in a container with salt, then hot and fiery sauce develops. Korea is home to some incredible fermented products. Kimchi is just one of many! I’ll bet that at least half of all Korean foods are left to stew in earthenware jars. Hongeo (skate fish/??) is one seriously fermented Korean dish. Cabbage is used in Germany, to produce one of their popular foods called Sauerkraut. History Heuksando (Heuksan Island), located off the coast of the South Jeolla mainland, has waters rich is sea life, including skate fish. During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Japanese pirates were invading the islands around Korea. In the effort to protect the people, the dynasty forced islanders to move to the mainland. The fishermen from Heuksando packed up their belongings and started out on the 5 day journey from Heuksando to Yeongsanpo (Yongsan Port). They brought a variety of fish with them, but it soon spoiled save the skate fish, which was preserved. The fishermen ate the fish and enjoyed the sharp tangy taste of the fermented skate. This delicacy was created completely by accident. The people of South Jeolla then began serving hongeo and it became a popular dish eaten on special occasions and at parties throughout the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties. Today hongeo is still an important food in all of Jeollado, both the north and south, and it is remains a delicacy. In Jeollado, fermented skate is prepared for big ceremonies and holidays. Hongeo is a mark of a special and well planned event. Without hongeo, Jeollado people feel like there is nothing to eat at the party. It is also rare and expensive because the skate fish does not grow or reproduce quickly. In fact, it is listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Korean skate fish, found off the coast of South Jeolla, is usually mottled skate fish and costs around 100,000won for a 4 person dinner plate. Korea is one of the largest skate fish consumers in the world, so the country now imports skate from Chile to help accommodate for demand. Chilean skate fish is less expensive and costs about 60,000won for a 4 person dinner plate. The Fermentation Process Skate fish is a member of the shark family and looks like a small sting-ray. It is flat with a kite shaped body . It has no bones, merely cartilage. The skate fish does not urinate like other fish. It passes uric acid through its skin. In Korea the fish is placed raw into an earthen clay pot and left at room temperature for a few days. Afterwards the uric acid drenching the skin produces ammonia which prevents the fish from rotting. The ammonia causes good and bad bacteria to grow. The good bacteria eventually kills the bad bacteria. Fermented skate is said to be over 100 times healthier than yogurt for its natural probiotic. I am not sure how the experts figured that figure out, but regardless of exact numbers, it is a healthy food. The ammonia also produces a terribly strong, overpowering smell that many find intolerable. The JoongAng Daily called the fish “not for the weak of stomach”, although the ammonia makes the food alkaline (basic) so it in fact settles an upset digestive system. Others find the texture worse than the pungent smell and harsh taste. The cartilage is not removed when it’s prepared, so it has a tough grisly consistency that is difficult to chew through. Although most people struggle to enjoy hongeo, those that can get past the pungent odor and unpleasant texture say the fish becomes addictive. People often have intense cravings for hongeo and develop a taste for it. Serving Hongeo There are a few ways to serve hongeo including raw with kimchi or grilled. It is also customarily eaten as Hongeo Samhap (??). Samphap translates to “harmonious trinity”. The dish is bossam (boiled pork belly/??), old kimchi and hongeo. The three creates a “harmonious” combination of flavors and cuts down the sharpness of the hongeo. There are a few theories about how this trinity came to be. One theory is that pork rots easily while skate becomes fermented by the heavily saturated ammonia. When the ammonia from the skate fish mixes in the stomach it kills the bad germs from the pork. A long time ago when food was scarce Koreans were able to save old pork by eating it with hongeo. Another theory is that in the old days skate fish was expensive as it remains today. People could not afford to eat an entire meal of skate fish, so they paired it with pork and kimchi. The three foods were enough to be a filling meal and the combination happened to go well together. The final theory is that during one bad storm hundreds of years ago some fishermen from South Jeolla stayed overnight at the nearest port town. The weather was terrible and it was too far for them to head all the way back to their home villages. They had fermented skate and kimchi aboard the ship. They brought the food to their lodging where the landlady was serving bossam. They ate their skate and her bossam together wrapped in kimchi. Everyone agreed that it tasted delicious and thus the tradition began. Hongeo and hongeo samhap is also often served with makgeolli. This pairing is called Hongtak (??). The makgeolli works similarly to the pork belly with the hongeo. It breaks down the horrific scent from the fish and makes it easier to eat. As well, hongtak is considered to be an especially healthy meal because it consists of three fermented foods, hongeo, kimchi and makgeolli.

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