It’s not easy being a skate (especially a male one)Pity the male skate fish. As if it weren’t enough that he stinks like a rotten egg, he also has to undergo an extremely embarrassing indignity at the hands of Korean seafood merchants.
The male skate is known for rough bones and soggy meat, which is why he fetches half the price of the female in local markets. It’s said that merchants will sometimes try to mislead shoppers by cutting away the bottom of the male skate’s belly, where the reproductive organs are. This tradition led to a cruel Korean expression used to describe an insignificant thing or person: “as easy as the bottom of a skate.”
But when it comes to food, Koreans go for peculiarities. The Koreans’ love for skate reconfirms that. Much as the French have done for foie gras, Korean gastronomists over the years have praised the aesthetics of fermented skate. In some parts of the Jeolla region, steamed skate is used to evaluate the quality of restaurant chefs.
For casual diners, this bottom-dwelling fish offers a challenging taste. Whether steamed or raw, most Korean restaurants serve it slightly fermented. It makes the scent of ammonia even stronger, but that seems to be the point.
In his memoir about food, “Taste and Nostalgia,” novelist Hwang Seok-young describes his first taste of fermented skate almost as an erotic experience.
“The piece of fish filled my mouth with gas, so strong that I was about to explode,” the novelist writes.
“Teardrops dribbled; I could hardly breathe...
“Then I gulped down an entire bowl of rice wine... It was a revolution of taste.”
According to Hwang, the best place in Korea for skate is Mokpo, a port city and culinary paradise in South Jeolla province known for its fresh seafood.
In Mokpo, they’ll wrap pork belly and raw, fermented skate together in kimchi. Locals call this “a three combination.”
Beginners, though, should be warned that all three of those ingredients are so acidic that the combination can sear your palate.
For something a little friendlier, there is always hongoe jjim, steamed skate served with vegetables ― a perfect appetizer.
Served with rice wine, it will make you forgive everyone who ever challenged you to put a piece of fermented skate in your mouth.
How to Cook
Hongoe jjim (steamed skate)
Ingredients: 1 small skate, 1 red pepper, 1/2 carrot, 1/4 zucchini. For sauce: 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, 4 teaspoons of water, 2 teaspoons of honey, 2 teaspoons of crushed onion, 1/2 teaspoon of crushed garlic, pepper, 1 teaspoon of Cheongju (Korean wine), 1 teaspoon sesame seeds. Serves 3 or 4.
1. Clean and fillet the skate. Let it sit out on a dry surface for about three days.
2. Just before cooking, soak the fish in cold water for 10 minutes.
3. Mix the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl.
4. Place the fish in a steamer and pour the sauce over it. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Thinly slice carrots, zucchini and red pepper. Stir them over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes in a separate pan coated with oil, and let cool.
6. Separate the egg, beat the yolk and fry it in a thin spread. Cut into bite-size pieces.
7. Serve the fish on a plate topped with vegetable and egg yolk slices.
--Adapted from “Korea Traditional Food,” recipes collected by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (Changjo Munwha, 2000).
by Park Soo-mee