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:
OMFG. THERE WERE TINY DEAD FISH FLOATING IN THE JAR.
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.