What is Fishy Flavours?

Many fish or shellfish have virtually no fishy flavour at all if cooked and eaten when completely fresh: the fish as an organism is dead but the cells are still living.

We know fish of this sort only in restaurants where they are kept alive in tanks or when we buy fish still kicking on the slab. Raw ‘live’ fish as eaten, for instance, in some parts of Holland or in the East, have no fishy taste. The flavour is marine, tasting of the sea, until it has been kept for a few hours. Caviar eaten on the shores of the Caspian has also no fishy flavour whatever.

If the ideal is fresh fish, then most people do not like the taste of fish which is slightly stale. But man has always liked the frank taste of carrion and fish that has really ‘gone off’ or been changed by fermentation stands high on the list. Some of these products are almost unbelievable. While writing this blog I brought home from Sweden a tin of surstromming. My recipe: send the family away for the day and then open the tin at the bottom of the garden, standing upwind and holding a spade. After relishing the horror of it, bury it quickly and pretend you have tasted it.

What is Fishy Flavours? Photo Gallery

There are many more reasonable preparations of fermented, dried or salted fish to be found throughout the world. An example would be anchovies, stockfish (dried unsalted) or salt cod (Fr: morue) which forms the basis of many famous dishes such as the brandade de morue of Provence, bacalao and typically Mediterranean Friday dishes in which salted fish (after soaking) is cooked with potatoes and black olives. All of these dishes taste strongly of fermented fish and would be quite different and less interesting if made with fresh fish.

In the East a great deal of sun dried fish, shrimp, shellfish, squid and octopus is eaten. For instance, ‘Bombay duck’ is the dried body of a small gelatinous fish (Harpodon negerus). The beaches of the fishing villages near Bombay are planted with huge racks of this and other fish hung up to dry in the tropical sun. The smell of these villages is rather like a fish glue factory. Bombay duck and other dried fish delicacies, such as Japanese dried squid, have recently come into vogue as sophisticated ‘cocktail snacks’. Dried octopus is another worldwide commodity, and the beaches in some places (for instance, Mauritius) are at some seasons festooned with these cephalopods drying in the sun. Beche-de-mer, or trepang, which the Chinese use to make a soup and which commonly enters Malaysian recipes, consists of sun dried sea cucumbers (wrongly called sea slugs) which are primitive animals shaped like a cucumber but related to the starfish and sea urchin. Balachan (Balachong, Blachan etc) or Malacca Cheese and Trasi come from the coasts from India to Vietnam and have many variations. They are essentially pastes of high dried prawns and are very important flavourings in South East Asian cooking. Anchovy is no substitute.

There are a number of important sauces and condiments derived from fish by processes of fermentation: garon (old Greek), garum and liquamen (Latin). Garon was used in ancient Greece six or seven hundred years before Christ, and similar products were used in cooking and as a sauce at table by the Romans (‘the best strained liquamen ex-factory of Umbricus Agathopus. Pompeii’).

Small fish, entrails and all, were fermented in brine for two or three months, and the liquid strained off. Apart from leaving in the entrails and valuing the liquid more than the fish, this process is remarkably like the present day method of curing anchovies. It is probably a direct descendant that Italians to this day use the liquid from anchovies, or even salted herrings, as a flavouring; whilst in Egypt and the Sudan a powerful sauce called faseekh is made by fermenting small fish with salt in old petrol drums.

Similar processes are used to produce the Nam Pla of Thailand, the Ngapi of Burma and Ngnoc-nam the national condiment of Vietnam Vietnam is rich in fish, not only from the sea but also from the tributaries and delta of the Mekong River and the flooded paddy fields. Nguoc-nam varies considerably in flavour and quality, the best being made from fish fillets, and is calledphu-quoc after the island it comes from It is said that there is no Vietnamese meal without nguoc-nam. It may be poured over rice or served in a small dish beside each plate into which are dipped the morsels of fish or meat. The sauce is usually adjusted with lemon juice, sugar, garlic and red pepper. The flavour, to me at least, is reminiscent of fish glue, but these sauces are full of amino acids, nutritious and wholesome. In Vietnam a few drops of nguoc-nam are put into babies’ feeding bottles. Because of the historic connection, one can buy Vietnamese foodstuffs in France or eat them in restaurants.

Another example of a flavouring sauce from South East Asia is prahoc. The heads are cut off small fish and they are put in baskets, well-trampled and then washed by repeated dunking in water. This gets rid of the scales and entrails. The water is then pressed out between banana leaves under heavy stones and the fish mixed with salt (one part salt to ten of fish), dried for a day in the strong sun, pounded and packed in earthenware jars to ferment. Every day over a period of about a month, the juice that comes to the top is taken off. This is prahoc sauce. (See also Ketchup and Anchovy).

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