Thai Tendency to Taint Sauce.
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, Taint 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 doesnt 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 couldnt 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. Dont 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 dont 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 didnt think twice about dousing their meager and repetitive
rations with an ass-flavored condiment. Hell, they probably didnt
smell very good themselves, now did they? Theres a theory that
they tried to bring it home to Britain and it somehow morphed into ketchup.
I dont 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 thats okay. Im 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 youre 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 email@example.com