FISH SAUCE

[I’ve been remiss in blogging. In the last 3 years I’ve blogged only once each year. I’m trying something new, using a daily prompt. Hopefully that will keep me writing again.]

I was in graduate school in Australia and was living in the international students’ dorm. To save money, we would cook all our own meals, and so we bought the condiments we were used to, back in our home countries.

One of the most prized condiments was Thai fish sauce, the one with the squid pictured in the label. It was of very high quality, better than what I could get back in the Philippines. The only thing about fish sauce is that when you are cooking with it, the entire building begins to smell of it – there’s a pungent smell hinting of salty, fermenting, decaying fish that’s so overwhelming you’ll need to open the windows. This would awaken the salivary glands of those who grew up in cultures where the smell of cooking with fish sauce was commonplace. But it would most commonly drive Westerners out of the building, choking and gagging. Knowing this, I never cooked with it, just served it on the side, with lemon. It did not smell when used as a dipping sauce. Despite the trauma of the cooking smell, our Western friends would return and happily partake of the dish, whose flavors had been transformed and melded into an umami-rich delicacy.

It’s the same with cooking dried fish. The smell can cause landlords overseas to discriminate against Asian tenants. I never cooked dried fish in the dorm in Australia, as it wasn’t sold in the neighborhood, but the craving would occasionally haunt me until I got back home again.

I’ve heard of this phenomenon called the “yum-yuck” contrast, a term used by judges on cooking competition reality shows. You intellectually don’t like the ingredients used in the food someone made, or think they don’t go together well, but in reality, you can’t help but enjoy eating the dish. The smell has something to do with that. Or it’s a culture thing. Smell is memory, they say. I think of fish sauce and dried fish fondly.

Daily Prompt: Pungent

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