My first experience with fermented fish was not a good one.
Halley’s Comet pays us a visit approximately every 75 years and the last time was 33 years ago. I wanted to optimally experience this once-in-a-lifetime event. One of the best viewing areas was French Polynesia so I booked passage on the Aranui, a freighter out of Tahiti, far away from the lights of civilization.
The Aranui delivered goods to the Marquesa Islands and brought back coconut to Tahiti to be processed into coconut oil. The freighter had space for a couple dozen tourists – mostly from Europe and the U.S. After a few days at sea I realized that hanging out and dining with the fellow tourists was keeping me from having the deep cultural immersion I was hoping for, so I started hanging out with the Polynesian sailors. We did not share a common language so we communicated with facial expressions and hand gestures. One day the sailors gestured for me to come eat with them. They were having fafaru, a local dish of fermented fish, allegedly delicious but smelling like three-day-old roadkill. Crabs are crushed and put into a bucket of saltwater which is left on the beach under the hot sun to ferment for a few days. The liquid is then strained and used to marinate fresh tuna. The marinated raw tuna is then topped with fermented coconut milk. I am an adventurous eater and I felt honored to be invited to share food with the Polynesians, but the rotten smell of the fermented fish made me retch, much to the amusement of my new friends.
A few years later my wife started dabbling in Southeast Asian cooking and bought some Vietnamese fish sauce, which is the liquid drained from barrels of anchovies left to ferment in the hot sun. The smell of the fish sauce triggered memories of Polynesian fafaru and I just couldn’t bring myself to eat anything she made with it. To make matters worse, one day the fish sauce bottle got knocked over, spilling its contents onto the floor and seeping underneath our heavy commercial refrigerator. It took months for the smell to dissipate!
I eventually got over my aversion and realized that once you get past the awful smell, fish sauce, used in moderation, imparts a wonderful umami to a dish. In fact the late Anthony Bourdain even recommended putting a dash of fish sauce in Thanksgiving turkey gravy.
I used to cook lunches and make snacks at my dental office. One day I tried out a new recipe for Thai Bar Nuts made with fish sauce. The nuts were delicious but the office ended up smelling so horrible that my weak-stomached assistant started throwing up and we had to cancel afternoon patients!
Top restaurants around the world are increasingly using fermented natural products to boost the flavors of their dishes, especially a group of fermented seasonings known as garum. Garum, made from fermented fish guts, was popular 2,500 years ago during the Roman Empire. Garum was the Roman equivalent of ketchup – a condiment used on 90 percent of all their dishes. Vats filled with fresh fish guts were placed between layers of salt and aromatic herbs and left in the sun for several months until they reached proper pungency. Garum was so popular that factories were built to keep up with the demand. With the fall of the Roman Empire, garum faded into relative obscurity.
Lat fall saw the publication of the widely acclaimed Noma Guide to Fermentation. During their book tour the authors mentioned that their favorite fermented flavor enhancer was garum made from fermented grasshoppers. As I stated earlier, I’m an adventurous eater, but I wasn’t ready to make the leap to eating fermented bugs.
This month I begin a new job as a chef at Nonesuch in Oklahoma City. Nonesuch has an active fermentation program. At the end of my working interview I was offered the job and given a gift of my own jar of grasshopper garum, which I was told was made from “$1,000 worth of live grasshoppers imported from Japan.” I bravely sampled my grasshopper garum and found it to taste like a mix of chocolate and soy sauce with a “Mexican mole-like complexity.”
I realize that exotic garums are a bit outside the realm of home cooks, but I encourage you to experiment with fish sauce, garum’s more accessible cousin. Sprinkle some on ripe tomatoes or put a few drops on grilled steaks to make the flavors pop. Add a teaspoonful to ground beef before you make burger patties.
Or try this recipe for Thai Bar Nuts. (Just don’t make these at work!)
Thai Bar Nuts
2 T light brown sugar
2 T fish sauce
1 t red curry paste
1/4 t ground ginger
1 lb unsalted peanuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.
Mix together the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl.
Add the peanuts and mix until coated.
Spread on baking sheet in an even layer.
Bake for 10 minutes, and then stir.
Bake another 3 minutes and stir.
Remove and allow to cool.
The restaurant industry has relied heavily on the talents of young immigrant cooks. As the current administration closes off its borders to immigrant workers it will be up to old retirees to cook your food. Follow Doc Glatz’s exploits as an old fart doing a young man’s job on Instagram @docglatz and Facebook @BerthaBus.