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Holy Fish Sauce!

July 13, 2010

Upon moving to Boston, my palate has been expanded to a whole new world of food. After living in predominantly small towns, and an island, the amount of ethnic food available has always been limited, besides your Americanized take out version. Boston is filled with amazing ethnic restaurants, the more hole in the wall the better. There is good spattering of Thai restaurants in the back bay area and it took no more than one taste to enter a sordid love affair with Pho Basil. Everything they serve is unbelievably fresh and flavorful. The word “gyoza” makes my heart beat faster and followed by the words “pad Thai,” I will surely swoon.
Like any foodie worth their salt, after developing an appetite for any sort of food, the next step is to recreate it in your own kitchen; getting the swing of things and then putting your own spin on it. I began researching recipes for my Supper Club (more on that later), pouring over recipes of beautifully fragrant broths, flavorful noodles, and those pockets of love, known as dumplings. I began to notice a trend in all of these recipes. A stinky, smelly, disgusting trend. Fish sauce. What is fish sauce you ask? I wasn’t really sure, but I had a vague recollection of Anthony Bourdain gasping for breath and covering his face while peering into large earthenware vats of the stuff. Ew. If he couldn’t handle it, I surely can’t.
Seriously, though, what is the stuff? A little googling revealed it is essentially everything you think it is;  fermented fish and salt. An article written by Thai native Kasma Loha-unchit (chef, teacher, author) explains the process in layman’s terms, warning the reader that it may deter them from ever going near the stuff. According to Loha-unchit, this single most used flavor in Thai cooking is made using fish that are readily available and easily caught in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, usually anchovies and related species. The fish are then mixed with salt- two parts fish and one part salt. The mixture is then left to ferment in the sun for months in earthenware jars. When the process is complete, the liquid is strained and left in clean jars to air out any overwhelming fishy aromas.
With this knowledge in tow, I avoided many of the Thai recipes I found and stuck to having others make it for me (namely Pho Basil). At my last turn for supper club though, I took the plunge. It was getting tough to avoid the Thai I so desperately wanted to make, and armed with the perfect summer recipes, I did it. I walked into Whole Foods and plucked from the shelves the plastic squeeze bottle brimming with the brown liquid. I made Thai style mussels (but subbed in seasonal steamers) and a rice noodle salad– both containing fish sauce! I avoided telling my friends just exactly what fish sauce was, and hoped no one would be standing close enough to catch a whiff of its pungent scent. The fish sauce went unnoticed until I revealed what the flavor in both dishes was that you just couldn’t put your finger on. Ashley has pictures on her blog here.
Fish sauce has, with ease actually, been added into my repertoire of flavor; I find myself searching for ways to incorporate its savory, salty, earthiness into my meals. Just be warned, if you get some one your hands and wipe your hands on a kitchen towel, the towel must be immediately washed, or perhaps burned. If neither is done, your apartment will develop an overwhelming rotten fish smell leading you to sniff everything in sight until you find said  contaminated towel, which coincidently you had been drying your hands on all week. Trust me though, its worth it.

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