The Fish Sauce Incident

It was June 2002 and the livin’ was easy.  I’d just graduated from college and cashed in a signing bonus for my first real job – to which I fortuitously wasn’t required to report until September.  My checking account balance was at an all-time high and I had three months of freedom.

So naturally, I did what any responsible 22-year-old would do and burned it bumming around Thailand all summer.

It was a great six weeks of traveling around and learning about a different culture.  (If by “different culture” you mean “different ways in which unshaven European backpackers drink light beer and lounge around hostel lobbies.”)  And, apparently, of wearing the same filthy bandanna every day.

Anyway.  Along with every other tourist who visits the northern capital, I took a half-day cooking class in Chiang Mai.

And as a result, when I returned to the states later that summer, I fancied myself an expert in all aspects of Thai cuisine.  (And also acquired a level of snobbery about Thai food which, I’m embarrassed to say, persists to this day.)

(I assume that most of my friends just tune me out at this point.)

Anyway.  One day, late in that summer of freedom, I decided I was going showcase my newly-acquired skills and cook an authentic Thai feast for my family.  Consisting of Pad Thai and Green Curry.  (Because…that was what we learned to cook in the class.)

I made a thorough grocery list, composed mostly of slightly exotic ingredients.  Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce. I headed to the local Asian market district, through which I’d driven through zillions of times but at which I’d never actually shopped.  (And it was pretty legit.  My hometown had a huge Asian immigrant and Asian-American population.)

Setting foot in the door, let’s just say I was a little…overwhelmed.

So I did what I usually did when out of my comfort zone; something I’d been practicing all summer while traveling abroad.  I faked it.

Picking my way through smelly fruits and mysterious peppers, I managed to gather everything on my list, except for that little jar of fermented fish.  Finally, I asked for help (read: gestured wildly and smiled charmingly) and a nice old man helped me find the goods.

I shoved it in to my basket, checked out, and headed home to get busy in the kitchen.

Woks were sizzling and pots were boiling when I finally pulled out the jar of Fish Sauce and examined it more closely:


This.  Was not like the fish sauce we’d used in the cooking class in Chiang Mai.

As unenthusiastic as I was about dumping slimy whole fish corpses in to my Pad Thai sauce, it was too late to improvise.  Even with my limited training, I knew that fish sauce was a critical component to my Pad Thai; it’s tough to substitute it effectively.

So I gritted my teeth and twisted the jar’s lid.

And twisted.  And grunted and sweated and cursed.  And twisted some more, but that lid was not budging.

I started to get stressed.  This little drama with the fish sauce jar was putting me behind schedule.  The wok sizzled menacingly, its contents threatening to overcook if I didn’t get back on track.

Finally, I gave the jar a firm bang on the edge of the counter, and –

– and then, three things happened in rapid succession:

(1) The jar of fish sauce exploded violently, projecting sticky brown sauce and little fish bodies on to everything within a ten-foot radius;

(2) An unspeakably horrible smell overtook the entire kitchen and, moments later, the entire house, prompting concerned parental units to come running to see what the hell was going on; and

(3) I screamed curses at the top of my lungs, not only because I was doused in rancid fish and their juices, but also because my awesome dinner that was supposed to impress everyone was definitely ruined now.

Dinner wasn’t the only thing that was ruined.  The curtains, the rugs, the walls…over the next couple of days, my mom and I scoured and scrubbed, but the smell just wouldn’t come out.  They had to be tossed.

Obviously, there was something wrong or spoiled about that particular container of fish sauce.  Perhaps the fact that there were actual dead fish involved was just icing on the cake.  Rancid icing. On rotten cake.

Nonetheless.  The moral of the story here?  If you see something dead and unexpected floating in your condiment, it’s probably best to just throw it away.

And also, that redemption in the kitchen is possible, with time.  Even after a horribly disgusting experience.  In spite of our rocky beginnings, fish sauce is now one of my favorite things to cook with.

I just stick to the Americanized brands.  You know, the kind you can buy at Whole Foods.

And with that, I’m off to make some delicious Fire Noodles for dinner.  A little sweet, a lot spicy, and infused with that delicious sweet-salty pungency that only fish sauce can add.  Yum.

Obviously the stuff doesn’t scare me anymore, but I have to admit that each time I take it out of the fridge, I shake it a little to make sure there is nothing floating on the bottom of the bottle.

And if I sense anything fishy about it?  You’d better believe I’m chucking it and ordering delivery instead.


19 responses to “The Fish Sauce Incident

  1. ewww I would not have even been able to touch something with dead fish in it! I don’t even like going fishing!

  2. Fish sauce smells like…hm.

  3. Fish sauce is uber ew…

    You should post an MS Paint tutorial.

  4. similar story: i worked at a garden center and one of the fertilizers is, for lack of a more nicer way to say it, fish corpses. ewwwwwwwwwwwww. just my luck that i drop a bottle and shatter it all over myself. majorly gross.

    i like the moral of your story. i think it’s something that should be plastered on billboards. i’m glad you survived the experience 🙂

  5. The smell of fish sauce is so gross, but homemade fish sauce (a family friend gives us some occasionally) is even worse. Blech. But it does add that flavor that you just need for certain dishes. 🙂

  6. Omg omg omg. That was vile enough to hit my gag reflex at 6:16 a.m. THANKS SHELBS. BLECHHHHH. I’ll stick to the fake-but-at-least-not-fishy vegetarian fish sauce recipes. Authenticity is not that important to me.

    Want another gross story? In elementary school I was kind of obsessed with plain sauerkraut as a snack (and no, that’s not the gross part). One day, I opened a new jar, and inside was a cute little dead maggot – amusingly, about the same color as the sauerkraut. Thankfully, I was a little too young to be entirely nauseated.

  7. Hahaha… ew. I have the same kind of reaction to tiny dried baby shrimp. I think they smell and taste terrible, but my very kind Taiwanese neighbors love them and periodically bring us things to try with tons of dead, dried baby shrimp baked in. “Oh, thank you so much…”

  8. The same thing happened to me once! Well, not exactly. I tried to make crack-cocaine with baking powder instead of baking soda? But the results were just as disastrous.

    For serious though: I would love to learn Thai food.

  9. You are a master story teller! Glad you were able to redeem yourself and become, in my opinion, a master at Asian cooking. 🙂

  10. I remember this incident vividly…and we love Thai food but I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy fish sauce yet. Maybe I will give it a try with the brand you use. Or better yet, come home and remake that dinner for us!

  11. “Authentic” for me is a red flag, especially on Asian or Southern ingredients. It usually means “tastes gross to Barbarians/Yankees.”

  12. OH my god GROSS. Just gross!

  13. That is a hysterical story, but I adore the old pics- those are too cute!

  14. Oh man. There ain’t to stank like fish stank.
    I worked on an organic farm last summer, which meant that instead of using corrosive chemical fertilizers, we used fertilizers made from the carcasses of dead animals. One such lovely substance was fish emulsion, which is basically the leftovers from fish processing, pulverized into a thick, gray sludge. We had to dilute it with water in a giant old oil drum. I had nightmares about falling into that thing.

    Interestingly enough, I loved that farm job, all fishiness aside.

  15. If you see something dead and unexpected floating in your condiment, it’s probably best to just throw it away.

    This? Is why I’m vegan.

  16. Yikes… I’ve never seen that kind of fish sauce. But I’m definitely now a Thai food snob. NOTHING on earth is better than the carts in Bangkok!

  17. This is hilarious. Love that you went to Thailand. Your drawings are once more cracking me up. I love going to the asian market because at 5′ 1″ I can actually feel relatively regular height. 🙂

  18. Hilarious! I love the drawing with the “pet eel.” I have that same Americanized fish sauce in my fridge.

  19. Pingback: Le Cinq de Mai | eat, drink, run

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