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2004 The Beast


TASTE THE TRUTH

By “Fats” O’Leary

The Thai Tendency to “Taint” Sauce.


So, while combing our new hometown for Thai food, J once again reminds me of the reason he will not be partaking. J, a culinary school graduate saddled with an unusually large number of taste buds and an olfactory sense that would shame a bloodhound, has an impenetrable aversion to something he has come to refer to as “Taint Sauce.” This substance, otherwise known in the non-freakboy world as fish sauce, or Nuoc Mam, is a flavoring and a condiment made of fermented fish entrails used primarily in traditional Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.

And it smells like ass.

“Taint,” for those of you unfamiliar with the colloquialism, is a peculiarly quaint reference to the body part medically designated as the perineum. Or, for those of you unfamiliar with that term, the area of skin between the sex organ (of either sex) and the anus. As in, “T’aint here nor there.” Hence, “Taint Sauce.” Evocative, no?

Now, in one particular Thai restaurant on Elmwood Avenue sporting a fresh and clean decor, some well-executed lighting and positively soothing wallpaper, a whiff of ass is surely as out of place as, say, well, a whiff of ass in a nice restaurant. Anyway, there you are, sitting in a nice, relaxing and rather upscale-feeling Saigon Café with a lovely view of the busy fishbowl kitchen and bustling Elmwood Avenue, and you order a Pad Thai. Noodles. “How can one go wrong with noodles?” you ask. How wrong one can go indeed.

At this juncture, I feel it is important to point out that just because an exotic dish is prepared in the authentic traditional fashion doesn’t necessarily render it appropriate for even the most refined and educated of American palates. There are simply some things in the culinary universe that take getting used to, over a sustained period of time and DNA dispersion. Take salted, ammonia-flavored licorice, for example. The Swedes are smitten with this stuff pretty much straight out of the womb. Being half Swedish, I couldn’t get enough of my yearly Christmas allotment, yet took great delight in offering my grade-school friends candy that was guaranteed to turn their faces purple with sheer oxygen deprivation. Don’t even get me started on Lutfisk (fish that is fermented and buried in the ground for a length of time that would give a health inspector apoplexy)...Every ethnicity appears to have its own form of doomsday cuisine, a phenomena perhaps originating with clever leaders intent on preventing conquest by invaders from foreign lands. Think about it. We don’t often like to stay places where the food sucks.

So, in Vietnam and Thailand, this doomsday condiment, this Nuoc Mam, is said to have been discovered by British sailors so completely out of their minds with lust, boredom, and drunkenness that they didn’t think twice about dousing their meager and repetitive rations with an ass-flavored condiment. Hell, they probably didn’t smell very good themselves, now did they? There’s a theory that they tried to bring it home to Britain and it somehow morphed into ketchup. I don’t know; sounds fishy.

But I digress.

I love Thai food. Americanized Thai food, that is. And, Pad Thai, sans Taint Sauce, is very likely one of my top ten favorite dishes. Authentic Pad Thai is an exercise in tastebud-rape. Which probably exposes me for the unsophisticated, plodding, pedestrian, comfort-food-addicted couch potato that I have become, but that’s okay. I’m comfortable with that. I have earned my culinary stripes and therefore reserve the right to reject anything I damn well please on any basis whatsoever.

From a purely monetary standpoint, serving any dish that smells (and yes, tastes somewhat) of ass seems like a poor business decision. Noodle-oriented dishes in any cuisine yield an extremely high profit margin, and as such, are an ideal pander to an unrefined gourmand. Even if you are a proud Thai, bent on educating the oafish American tongue, you risk a certain diminishing return. I do not believe that a high percentage of American tongues greet the taste of fish sauce with enthusiasm right off the bat. At most, a proud Thai restaurateur would maybe glimpse an attempt at polite surprise on the faces of a large portion of his clientele upon their ingestion of any dish containing more than 2 parts per million of the substance. A prudent move might be to offer these dishes with the option of having them prepared in the authentic traditional manner, thus allowing for a certain flexibility and face-saving measure for patrons who would otherwise enjoy a delightful concoction of spicy noodles, shrimp, chicken, tofu, sprouts and peanuts on the premises, and further sparing them the discomfort of guzzling an entire pitcher of water while attempting to explain why they suddenly decided to take the entire thing home in a doggy-bag.

That being said, this little diatribe is not to be taken as an indictment of the Saigon Café as a whole. Their perfectly spiced green curry made my eyes roll up into the back of my head with pure languid pleasure and the crispy Vietnamese pancake appetizer was huge, tasty and decidedly unhealthful. Come to think of it, it is vital to note that many Thai dishes are not, in any way, healthful. Coconut is a staple ingredient in Thai cooking and it is also one of the most fattening substances known to man. But, then, if you’re among the many misguided souls who have fallen prey to the Atkins Marketing Atrocity, by all means, dig in. Thai restaurants are a great place to drive your body straight into ketosis.

Fats can be reached at fatsoleary@yahoo.com



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