Every chef worth their salt lives by the adage ‘when in doubt, throw it out’. This statement encompasses everything that we are supposed to stand for. Food safety being our topmost priority. This goes beyond creativity, way beyond flair and definitely above any kind of cost saving measures that you may want to initiate. Rotten food should never exist as far as we are concerned. In fact we want to even eliminate food that is planning to get rotten.
But then there are times when we hit stumbling blocks in our intentions. This is not because we want to willingly serve food that smells like a corpse but because that is exactly what authenticity demands. Now you are going to sit up and go ballistic on me. You are probably going to question my sanity and my morality. Hey, I don’t write the rules. I may not abide by all of them but that is a discussion for another day.
And I am not talking about the smell either. If you wanted to seek out fresh durian during season, you would never have to ask for directions in a Southeast Asian market. All you would have to do is to trust your olfactory senses. You would find the durian bang in the centre of the very spot where you feel the most repulsed.
And the Thai nampla fish sauce may smell strong and heady, may be fermented but it is just awesome to use.
Granted not all rotten food is bad for you. Japanese miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and Korean kimchi cleverly disguises the rotten cabbage by referring to it by the more appealing term ‘fermented’. Sauerkraut like kimchi is technically also fermented and every cheese is technically rotten at its very core. The Indonesians swear by the fermented soy tempeh that is slowly turning into a meat substitute for everyone across the globe.
But not all forms of rotten are equal. It is like the difference between a lovable rascal and an evil villain.
How do I even begin to explain to you about a Sardinian cheese called casu marzu that is so rotten that it actually has maggots living within its confines? And if you are brave enough to try this cheese and you are one of the few unlucky ones, the maggots could decide to stay on in your gut… permanently!
Luckily for us, Icelandic cuisine hasn’t made waves internationally or we would have all been subjected to hakarl. This happens to be the result of shoving a headless shark into a covered gravelly pit for a couple of weeks, then digging up the putrefying flesh, cutting them into strips and hanging them to air-dry for a couple of months so that they turn more rancid than you thought possible. And just in case you thought that this was the end, it gets worse. Against all notions of sanity, this rotten fish is eaten raw!
When the Alaskans prepare to serve stinkheads, they are really taking the name seriously. King salmon heads are buried in fermentation pits or in the ground for a couple of months. They are yanked out when the aromas match their name and simply mashed up before serving.
The native Alaskan Intuits also get a kick out of burying stuff. When they manage to score a walrus or any other huge marine mammal, they cut it into pieces, bury it in the ground to ferment over the period of autumn and winter and dig it out when the ground finally thaws in the spring. This traditional preparation is known as igunaq and there also exist traditional recipes that are passed down from one generation to the next. Apparently botulism and botulism related deaths have occurred when this has not been prepared properly. When it has been prepared properly, disgust related deaths seem pretty much inevitable!
And close on the heels of people dying from igunaq comes the Egyptian fesikh that is often prepared for the famous Sham-el-Nessim feast. Prepared from salted and dried mullets, the recipes for these are also handed down from generation to generation. Not that it seems to be doing much good since all that these recipes have managed to do over the centuries is to kill off some really good and innocent people.
It probably is truly time to heed the old adage, ‘when in doubt, throw it out’!