Korea’s Fish Special: A Delicate Mix of Outhouse and Ammonia (The New York Times)

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HEUKSAN ISLAND, South Korea — South Korea has a generous list of foods some find hard to swallow, among them boiled silkworm pupae and live baby octopuses, which have been known to attach their suction cups to the roofs of diners’ mouths in what appear to be desperate bids to escape.

But fermented skate from this southern island tops them all. By far South Korea’s smelliest food, the fish, called hongeo, is described by lovers and detractors alike as releasing odors reminiscent of an outhouse. Served most often as chewy pink slabs of sashimi, hongeo is prized by enthusiasts for the ammonia fumes it releases, sometimes so strong they cause people’s mouths to peel.

“I used to think that people could not possibly eat this stuff unless they were crazy,” said Park Jae-hee, a 48-year-old marketing executive. “But like smelly blue cheese, it has no replacement once you fall in love with it.”

It is easy, of course, to poke fun at other nations’ cuisines: Consider Europeans’ wrinkled noses at the American penchant for slathering ketchup on everything from fries to scrambled eggs. But some South Koreans who are otherwise fiercely proud of their fiery, often odoriferous foods, like kimchi, admit to being repelled by hongeo and baffled by its rising popularity.

“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,” said Ms. Park’s closest friend, Huh Eun.

Even those who swoon over its exotic taste cheerily admit their passion comes with some social costs. A subway ride after a meal of hongeo can be isolating, with fellow riders sometimes casting furtive glances and sidling away. Owners of restaurants that specialize in hongeo advise customers to seal their jackets in plastic bags before the meal and offer to spray them with deodorant afterward.

“I’ve eaten dog, durian and bugs, but this is still the most challenging food I’ve ever eaten,” said Joe McPherson, the American founder of the Korean food blog ZenKimchi, who has become a self-appointed ambassador for Korean cuisine. “It’s like licking a urinal.”