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A strong smell of fish?

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Liittynyt: 25 Tou 2005
Viestejä: 5614
Paikkakunta: Korso/Vantaa/Si Khiu

LähetäLähetetty: 16.10.2005 16:14    Viestin aihe: A strong smell of fish? Vastaa lainaamalla viestiä

Annie Hubert kirjoitti:

The use of fermented products has greatly enhanced humanity’s range of food sources. We will never know how our distant, and ingenious, ancestors discovered that it was possible to control an extraordinary natural phenomenon like fermentation. Had they perhaps already understood that in all natural environments there are substances that are transformed through the action of microorganisms? Did they know that this spontaneous process would allow them to make nutritious and extremely tasty foods? Whatever actually happened, all subsequent culinary cultures have used fermentation as a method of transforming foods with excellent results.
Though in the West everyone knows about the fermentation of dairy products, cereals, fruit juices and even meat, it is less well known that fish can also undergo this kind of treatment. Pickled herrings and anchovies are contemporary examples of this ancient preservation technique. Scandinavians ferment herring in large wooden barrels with salt, sugar and spices and use the same process to preserve “lean” herring – those fished in the Baltic Sea between May and June – which develop a strong flavor that some people love and others detest. But the Romans used this technique long before the Scandinavians to make garum and liquamen, preparations they had learned from the Greeks. These sauces were familiar throughout the Mediterranean world in ancient times. They were manufactured in real factories, usually situated in the outskirts of the cities because of the malodorous smell produced by the manufacturing process. These fish pickles are still used today in North Africa and in the Middle East, where they are known as mâyawha. In African countries, too, fish is usually fermented and dried, and used to flavor sauces. On the Pacific island of Tahiti, the famous fafuru sauce is prepared with fish fermented in seawater. But the continent that makes the greatest use of fermented fish products is Asia, especially the south east, which offers the greatest number of sophisticated preparations.

Taste, distaste and aromas
Vietnamese nuoc mam and Thai nam plaa are familiar condiments in Europe today. Their typically strong aroma was for a long time considered unpleasant. It is vaguely reminiscent of sex, “of a young girl who doesn’t wash properly”, as the French colonials in Indochina used to say. So what is so appetizing about these flavors and odors that hover between the delicious and the disgusting? Today that pungent yet delicate smell immediately evokes the aromas and flavors of south-east Asian cuisine. Both sauces mentioned are made from fermented salt or freshwater fish. Preparation is simple: alternate layers of fish and salt are placed in a terracotta jar, with salt comprising about 20 per cent of the whole mixture. The jar is covered with a mat and left to ferment at room temperature for one to three months. The liquid extracted from this pickle is the first-quality sauce. Subsequent topping up and filtering will provide second and third-grade sauces. The liquid obtained is bottled and left in the sun for two or three days until it takes on a nice caramel color. Real experts can distinguish the various “crus” of this sauce and the same was probably true in ancient Mediterranean civilizations.
Vietnam is the Asian country that can probably claim to have invented fish pickles, which did not appear in Thailand until the beginning of the last century.
But how was pickled fish eaten before these sauces appeared? As a paste or an unfiltered mixture? Both methods are found in Laos and in Thailand and are respectively known as pa dek and pla ram. Both preparations are made from small crustaceans and saltwater or freshwater fish cut into pieces, salted and fermented in small terracotta pots. Less salt is needed than for the sauces, but bran and cracked rice are added to trigger off the lactic ferment-ation that will ensure thorough preservation of the product. If the salt content is not below 20 per cent, the fermentation microorganisms will stop multiplying at a certain point, which leads to autolysis. Typical examples of this are nuoc mam and nam plaa. Pa dek and pla ram are older, less sophisticated products which need less salt (often expensive) and have been perfected by the addition of carbohydrates (bran and cracked rice), which make it possible to achieve a good level of fermentation. This shows that a range of different various fermentation processes have been known empirically for a long time. Sauce, made from little pieces of fish in their own juice, is a much-esteemed condiment. Without pa dek, green papaya salad, for example, would not exist.

Fermented fish can also be used to make fish paste. In south-east Asia, we find it in Indonesia, where it is called transi, in Malaya it is known as belanchan and in Thailand kapi. Other variations on the same theme can be found in China, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Saltwater or freshwater fish and crustaceans are fermented in terracotta jars with at least 20 per cent salt. The mixture is then reduced to a pulp and partially dried to form a thick paste. Fish pastes are used as the basis for an endless number of sauces to accompany raw and cooked rice and veg-etables. They are probably improved versions of recipes from the past, obtained by the same kind of fermentation used for pa dek in Laos. These same pastes were the forerunners of liquid fish sauces, like Vietnamese nuoc mam and Thai nam plaa.
In this part of Asia, such sauces are often used instead of salt to season foods. At table or in the kitchen, they enhance flavors thanks to the magic of the fermentation process. Dishes seasoned in this way acquire the special, inimitable tang of one of the world’s great culinary traditions.
The many different fermented fish products, while noisome in their original state, perform a beneficial role in human nutrition. They are rich in amino acids, nitrogen, and various trace elements, including sodium chloride, phosphorus, calcium and fluoride, and have undoubtedly contributed to the survival and good health of entire generations who had only a small quantity of rice and vegetables to eat. Fermented fish products have a high nutritional value and these days, when food supplements have become an obsession, it is comforting to think that by eating a tasty dish dressed with nuoc mam, we can obtain the same benefits as – and a lot more pleasure than – swallowing two capsules of trace elements whose provenance is unknown!

Fermented or rotten?
This is a subtle cultural distinction. Fermented foods may be pleasant and enjoyable to some but seem decomposed, and therefore rotten, to others. When does fermented food become rotten food? All culinary cultures use fermentation as a transformation technique to bring out a wide range of flavors, associating them with specific gastronomic characteristics. Selection of the ideal stage of fermentation varies from one culinary tradition to another. The concept of “rottenness” therefore belongs to the cultural rather than the biological sphere. The term defines a point where a food becomes unsuitable for consumption according to criteria associated with taste, presentation and the concept of hygiene in different human societies. Fish is a case in point. In the West today, fish must be absolutely fresh, and any product showing the first signs of fermentation is classified as “rotten”. Yet in Greenland, they leave fish hanging for a few days to give it more flavor. Our mentality and hygiene standards would not tolerate anything of the kind. Indeed, we might well ask ourselves whether nuoc mam would be quite so fashionable if it were widely known that it contains fermented fish. Otherwise known as rotten fish.

Nam Phrik Plaa (spicy fish sauce)

6 grilled fresh peppers
5 grilled shallots
2 grilled garlic cloves
200g fresh fish pulp
one spoonful of fermented shrimp (kapi) or fish paste (pla ram)
one and a half cups of water
2 small onions
one small bunch of fresh coriander leaves
salt, sugar and lime juice

Peel the shallots and garlic, then crush them in a mortar with the grilled peppers to obtain a paste. Bring the water to the boil and add the fresh fish pulp and the shrimp or fish paste, and simmer for as long as necessary. Drain the fish pulp and grind in the mortar with the previously prepared peppers, shallot and garlic paste. Filter the fish broth and add a quarter or half cup to the contents of the mortar to obtain a fairly thick cream. Add the lime juice, a pinch of sugar and salt to taste. Place a bowl of sauce in the center of a plate and arrange the small onions cut into halves or quarters around it, lengthwise, garnishing with fresh coriander leaves. Serve with mixed vegetables, either steamed or raw, to dip into the sauce.

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