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Tangy and Refreshing - Preserved Fish Products

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
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Preserved Fish Products

The salty element of Asian cooking comes in many forms—fermented soybean products, such as soy sauce, tempeh, and bean paste, for instance. The other main area where salt is found is in dried and fermented fish products. The intense tropical humidity that exists across much of China and Southeast Asia, combined with a lack of proper refrigeration, means that fish and seafood spoil very easily if not eaten straight away. In the past, the only way to preserve much of it was to dry it in the sun, salt it, or allow it ferment. These preservation methods are widely used across Southern China, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Salting and drying change the flavors from subtle to intense and powerful. As a result, dried and preserved seafood are seen more as condiments or flavorings, and used more sparingly than if fresh.

Dried seafood can be steamed, fried, or grilled, then used in combination with other, fresher ingredients. It includes fish, large, medium, and tiny; scallops; abalone; squid and cuttlefish; jellyfish; oysters; and shrimp.

“Salting and drying change the flavors from subtle to intense and powerful. As a result, dried and preserved seafood are seen more as condiments or flavorings.”

Shrimp paste

There are various forms of this pungent fermented paste across Southeast Asia. In Thailand it is called kapi, which is made by putting small shrimp into jars of salt and leaving them to ferment. The shrimp almost digest themselves as their digestive enzymes break down. In Malaysia, another version is made called balacan, a paste of pulverized shrimp and salt that is spread on a mat to dry in the sun. This paste is packed into bricks, then sold in smaller blocks or slices. Both are very pungent. When shrimp paste is wrapped in banana leaves or foil, and baked or dry-roasted for 5–10 minutes, the pungency disappears and the paste becomes aromatic. Blended with other flavors in curry pastes, marinades, dressings, and sambals, it imparts an intense depth of flavor with salty and savory characteristics, rather than fishy ones. Sambal balacan is a famous Malaysian paste of chiles, shrimp paste, lime leaves, and lime juice.

Fish sauce

Known as nuoc nam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand, fish sauce is essential to the cooking of Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines in the same way that soy sauce is to Chinese and Japanese cuisine. The aroma is stronger than the taste, and takes a bit of getting used to. Again, on its own it is strong and pungent; however, when combined with complementary elements such as lime juice, chiles, and fresh herbs, it is transformed. When cooked, it loses its fishy taste and adds depth of flavor instead.

Fish sauce is made by packing small anchovy-like fish in barrels of brine, which are left to ferment in the sun for a few months. The resulting brown liquid is highly nutritious. In Vietnam, there is a saying: “Without good fish sauce, food can never taste good, regardless of how talented the chef.” This archetypal sauce is used to season food, as well being one of the main ingredients of the typical dipping sauces found in Southeast Asian cuisine. The best fish sauce comes from an island called Phu Quoc off the coast of Vietnam; the first run-off liquid is light amber and fragrant, and is best used for dipping sauces so that it is not cooked—rather like the finest extra virgin olive oil.

Dried shrimp

These staple dried ingredients are widely used. In Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam, stalls sell scores of different varieties. Every shade of orange and pink, ranging minutely in size, is represented, in open sacks like grain or rice. The smell of them on such a large scale is intensely pungent; they are best used in small portions. In China, dried shrimp appear in soups and rice dishes, and stuffed with minced pork in wonton dumplings. In Thailand, they are used in noodle dishes and pounded into salads such as the amazing yam som tam, hot and sour green papaya salads that originated from what is now Laos and have cult status all over Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, dried shrimp are crushed and added to spicy sambals. They can be steamed or soaked, lightly toasted, or simply crushed with garlic and chile using a mortar and pestle. When crushed, they lose their intense pungency, instead becoming aromatic and flavorful. Dried shrimp are best kept in airtight containers and can be bought from Chinese or Asian markets.

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