Fish fermentation consists of a simple salt-curing process: mixing or coating a whole fish, sliced fish or minced fish meat with salt and rice husks (or ground roasted rice). The mixture is then allowed to rest and ferment for few months. This fermentation process creates deep, intense umami flavor agents accompanied by a strong stench. It is only with culinary sagacity and skill that cooks are able to harness and direct these powerful flavors within the context of an appetizing dish, and to constrain the odor to an agreeable intensity.
If we could strip away the spices, the seasonings, the vegetables and the herbs from savory dishes we could uncover their naked flavor profile core. There, we would encounter a strong savory-umami, sometimes coupled with other basic elements of smoke and fat. This flavor core is, for us humans, the sought-after taste of protein; our first sip of mother’s milk, and the primal experience of burned game meat on the fire.
Today we would like to highlight a powerhouse for umami creation: the fermentation process. We will focus on fermented fish innards from southern Thailand (dtai bpla ไตปลา), one of about a dozen fermented products used in the country. We will show you how chefs for the capital’s elite, as early as or, before the reign of King Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II, 1767-1824), harnessed its wild nature and created a dish similar to what we present today - a salad with infused fermented fish innards dressing.
The dish was introduced to me by a street vendor in forsaken part of town some twenty years ago. Auntie Yai was a true character. She was wearing intensive makeup and I still remember her talkative hilarious manner. I and other customers waiting in line were regularly subjected to nonstop "interrogations" or "interviews". I must admit I enjoyed the peek into other people lives while waiting over an hour for her mouth watering curried rice croquettes. I loved how the pungent, vibrant swirl of ginger was setting off the fermented pork sourness just perfectly, how the nutty crunch of those peanuts was balanced by the vivid tone of fresh herbs.
Soybeans have been an integral part of Asian cooking since ancient times. The Chinese refined and disseminated the secrets of soybeans fermentation into savory food flavoring agents. From the Natto in Japan to the Indonesian Tempeh, Soybeans are in the roots of Asian cuisine.
In the northern parts of Thailand, the home of the gentle Lanna cuisine, we can find yet another type of fermented soybeans product called Tua Nao.
Naem is a fermented sausage made with pork, pork skins, cooked sticky rice (glutinous), fresh garlic, salt, sugar and bird's eye chilies. The sausage is wrapped in banana leaves or synthetic casings and fermented for 3-5 to days at about 30C and 50% humidity. The fermentation process enables the growth of Lactic acid bacteria and yeasts, mostly lactobacilli, which accounts to the sourness of the sausage. The salt acts as an inhibitor preventing the meat from going rotten, allowing Lactic acid bacteria and yeasts to feed on the rice and sugar, fermenting the meat to perfection.
Cured pork is made by fermenting a mixture pork meat, cooked pork skin julienne, salt, garlic and cooked sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. During the summer we leave the wraps unrefrigerated until a rich savory and slightly sour flavor develops. This method of preserving meat goes back to the days before refrigeration was widely used. In this Northern style recipe I use homemade cured pork, though any commercial product from your local Asian store will do just fine.