When an American starts cooking Asian food, there are all sorts of "inscrutable" ingredients to deal with. Sure, you can stick to relatively safe stuff like teriyaki sauce, but be warned, somewhere out there natto is lurking. The Chinese have substances like bird's nests and preserved vegetable. It's tempting at this juncture to make some inappropriate comment about these quirky ingredients but every culture must have its own equivalents. I mean, what's more inscrutable than grits? (Let me hastily add that I like grits.) In any case, I've grown to enjoy some of these ingredients, such as fermented black beans. Others are taking longer for me to get used to.
Fish sauce has been one of the more difficult ingredients for me to handle. Not that it's tough to cook with, mind you; you just pour it into the pan or wok and there you are. The stuff just smells to high heaven. Open up your dictionary to the word "nasty" and there is a picture of a bottle of fish sauce. It is the bottled essence of fermented fish, and one wonders what possessed someone to try such a stunt. Someone did try it long ago, because the ancient Romans knew it as "garum."
I've read more than one Asian cookbook that indicated that shrimp paste was the ne plus ultra of horribly aromatic foodstuffs. Well, I've cooked with shrimp paste more than once and it just smells like shrimp being stir-fried to me. Well, ok, shrimp being stir-fried does smell like old sneakers, but it doesn't bother me. The fish sauce is relegated to the back corner of the fridge, however, carefully hidden behind anything else that can be stuck in front of it. Not that I really need to keep it in the fridge; as befits a substance so virulent, it has a prodigious shelf life.
Unfortunately for this simplistic picture of the universe, I noticed tonight that my bottle of fish sauce is getting low. Not to worry, however, because there's a brand-new bottle in the pantry, just waiting to be called upon. I was cooking "Thai-Style Sweet Pork" from From Bangkok to Bali in Thirty Minutes, except that I substituted chicken for the pork. The dish is simplicity itself; stir-fry chopped garlic in oil for a few seconds, then stir-fry the meat for two minutes, add fish sauce, palm sugar and pepper, and cook until heated through. When done, pour over a pile of jasmine rice.
As I intimated above, I find fish sauce to be a vile substance, but just about every dish I've cooked using it has been tasty indeed (the one exception was due to excessive salt, not to any fault of the fish sauce). Something about it gives a clean sparse flavor that lets the other ingredients in a dish take center stage. It has a bracing quality that is difficult to define, but which I'm learning to recognize as I build a track record of cooking with it. Tonight's dinner was no exception. I even found myself relishing the rice which had soaked up the pan juices. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m beginning to like fish sauce.