Something is Rotten in the State of Thailand

Fermentation is perhaps the ultimate proof of the existence of a loving God. For what would life be without sparkling wine, malt whisky and fine ales? And then there’s cheese – rotten, putrid milk at one level, but ambrosia, nectar of the gods, at another.

A couple of days ago I visited a small supermarket that had a modest selection of western foods, including a tiny sliver of Roquefort. It was exorbitantly priced, but I couldn’t resist. The creamy texture, the stench of decay – wonderful.

And what about yoghurt, smetana, crème fraiche?

Then there’s bread. One of my upcoming projects (as soon as I get an oven) is to try making sourdough bread. I’m hoping that the wild Thai yeasts are up to the job!

Ah, the delights of decay and corruption!

Strangely enough, almost all the above foods are “difficult” for Thai people; I could be confident that none of my friends would want to try a piece of my Roquefort so I didn’t need to conceal it within my fridge.

(Many years ago I was working with a group of senior Japanese managers from Tokyo who were visiting London for a special project. I was sent out to buy sandwiches for lunch. In my total naïveté my selection included both blue cheese and cream cheese (another no-no). They weren’t impressed, and most of the sandwiches were left uneaten. Of course, not a word of reproach was spoken.)

The mutual distaste for fermented foods from a foreign place works both ways. I (and most westerners) find the rotten offerings of Asia somewhat challenging.

In Thailand there’s fish sauce – the liquid which drips from rotting salted fish over a period of months. It’s almost ubiquitous in the cuisine – the local equivalent of salt.

A more intense version is plaa raa – the actual decaying fish itself. The smell is beyond belief, and that is but a minor hint as to the actual taste. It’s particularly popular in the north east.

And what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Or rather, it’s not just dead fish that suffers the indignity of sweating in the sweltering climate in a large pot for months to produce the virtually inedible: you can also ferment raw shrimp into a foul, sticky paste, in this case known as gapi in Thailand. But it’s popular throughout SE Asia. In Burma it’s known as ngapi. In Malaysia it’s belachan. In the Philippines it’s bagoong alamang. And there are similar substances in Indonesia, Vietnam, southern China. In fact, everywhere throughout the whole of the region has a version.

But then Asian fermented food isn’t limited to decomposing seafood. Korea has its kimchi, and Japan its natto and miso (both fermented forms of soy beans, as is soy sauce). Whilst miso and soy sauce are pretty accessible, natto, with its overpowering smell, vile flavour and slimy texture is an acquired taste I’d rather not acquire.

Stinky tofu and hairy tofu are evidence of both poor refrigeration techniques and a bizarre palate in Taiwan and the PRC. Tempeh (which I associate with Indonesia, but may have started elsewhere) is somewhat less offensive to those of us with … refined sensibilities.

The primary purpose of fermentation, it is said, is to enrich the diet through developing a diversity of flavours, aromas, and textures. It’s just that some of those flavours, aromas and textures are just a little too diverse.

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