Monday, November 12, 2007

Pure, stinky bliss . . .

Lately I’ve been pondering the magic of how obnoxious ingredients help produce glorious dishes. Take fish sauce, for instance. It’s made of salted, fermented fish—pretty basic stuff—and it has one of the most potent smells I’ve ever encountered. If you spilled even a bit of it into your carpet you’d probably be forced to either replace the carpet or sell the house!

Some people claim to like the smell of fish sauce. That’s possible, I suppose, since such likes and dislikes are purely subjective. I personally love inhaling deeply in cheese shops, while others will hold their breaths as they dash past the door.

So why would we want a bottle of something so odiferous in our kitchen? Because what it does to a Thai or Vietnamese dish is pure poetry. The effect is similar to what happens when you add a small amount of minced anchovies to a dish: You can’t taste the anchovies, but they give the food a more luscious, well-rounded flavor.

The Italian version of fish sauce is called garum or colatura. Made from anchovies, adding garum rather than minced anchovies to a dish is rather like using vanilla extract when you don’t have a fresh vanilla bean on hand. You get convenience without sacrificing too much flavor.

The genius of fish sauce is its flavor-enhancing potential. You can sneak a few drops into a pasta dish or stir-fry, regardless of whether you’re cooking seafood. It’s not the dominant flavor but rather a supporting note the fish sauce provides. No one will guess that you’ve essentially laced their dinner with essence of fermented fish, but, if you use it judiciously, they’ll just know that magic seems to flow out of your fingers and into their food.

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