by Alice DeLuca
In the early 1990’s we camped at Maleakahana State Park on the windward coast of Oahu Hawai’i. In the heat of the day I came upon a Hawaiian man who was busy reaching in to an ironwood tree to hang up a plastic grocery bag half-filled with something heavy, soft and squishy. It looked like what it was, a bag of guts, and I was somewhat apprehensive. He saw me watching him and offered politely that the bag’s contents included fish guts, salt, and chilies, and that after a few days of hanging there in the sun, rotting, the liquid would be drained off to use as sauce. I must have wrinkled up my nose, because he quickly expressed his opinion that only a Hawaiian would appreciate this sauce. He was hanging the bag in the tree to protect it from animals that would eat the rotting contents, which would ruin his planned feast. I regret not speaking with him about how he would use his sauce, but that opportunity is now lost in the mists of time.
This image has lasted in my mind for twenty years and linked itself to reading I have done about other fermented sauces – the garum of ancient Rome and the fish sauces of Thailand and Vietnam, among the funkiest of modern popular sauce condiments. There in Hawai’i was evidence of yet another culture that added a little fermented fish material to foods to heighten flavor.
The Hawaiian preserved fish sauce[i] is documented by Margaret Titcomb with the collaboration of Mary Kawena Pukui. Ms. Titcomb provides the following description of the process for making Hawaiian fish sauce:
Fish preserved without cooking made a dish called palu. .. The stomach, intestines, and all other parts were cleaned and added, seasoned with chili peppers, roasted kukui nuts and sometimes green seaweed (limu ‘ele’ele), the whole mixture chopped fine and set away in a closed vessel for several days to ripen. .. This was i’a ho’ohauna (to imbue with a fishy odour), also called i’a ho’omelu (to allow to begin to spoil) or ho’opilapilau (to make a stench). .. After setting a few days, palu was ready to give piquancy to a meal of greens or poi…
Footnotes point out, in an understated manner, that the very oily kukui nut has strong “purgative powers” and should be consumed only in small amounts, and that chili pepper is not native to Hawai’i, its cultivation there first recorded in 1815. The text further speculates that the “palu” sauce may have come with the Hawaiians from Polynesia or before they even reached Polynesia, and that a connection should be explored, if any exists, with the “Indonesian trassi and the Filipino bagoong”. (The word “Palu” is also used to describe a kind of chum, or fish bait, used in Hawai’i.)
The ancient Romans used fish sauces called garum or liquamen[ii] to season their food, storing the valuable liquid in small amphorae. Some amphorae from 1st century Britain have been unearthed, showing that these bottles included the maker’s name and some information on the contents. There was apparently no requirement for a nutritional label back then, but surely the sodium content would have been off the charts. The Museum of London provides a photo of an amphora used for fish sauce in 1st century Britain.[iii] More importantly, the folks at Celtnet provide instructions for manufacturing your own garum.[iv]
Getting back to my story, it is likely that I observed the actual preparation of the ancient fish sauce called palu in Hawai’i, using the modern “vessel” of a plastic grocery bag that could be hung up out of the way of stray animals. This method may have some drawbacks, because the plastic grocery bag is not usually made of food-grade plastic. Still, I will always regret that our camping trip was short and I was not able to taste the fermented sauce at its completion.
I have not made palu sauce and wonder if local zoning bylaws would allow for the preparation of a sauce that “begins to spoil” and “makes a stench.” I have confined my explorations to the many commercially prepared fish sauces, pastes and condiments on the market that can add a fishy funk to our lives, among them:
- Fermented Fish Sauces: Nam pla (Thai), nuoc mam (Vietnamese), patis (Philippine), shottsuru (Japanese), saeu chot (Korean), Colatura (Italian)
- Shrimp or Fish Pastes: bagoong (Philippine), hom ha (Chinese), trassi or terasi (Indonesian), kapi or gabi (Thai), belacan (Malay)
- Whole Salted Fish products: bottarga (Italian salted fish roe that Elizabeth David reports*[v] was served at the coronation of James II in 1685), salted anchovies (Mediterranean product that can be mashed in to sauces)
In general, when using these products for guests unfamiliar with their properties, I prepare the food ahead of time so that the guest is not necessarily aware of the fish sauce content of their food. Some people enjoy dishes made with ultra-funky fish sauce, and they appreciate its beautiful amber color, but do not like the smell of the fish sauce by itself.
To make an addictive dipping sauce using fermented fish sauce, combine fresh, highly flavored, spicy ingredients and serve the mixture as a low-fat alternative condiment.
The Best Funky Dipping Sauce Ever comes from Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey’s New New York Times Cookbook[vi]. They called the sauce Ginger and Green Chili Sauce, and, although similar to many sauces from Southeast Asia it is unusual in not using any sugar, oyster sauce or sesame oil. It is delicious with grilled meats or poultry or fondue beef, and surprisingly outstanding with roasted turnips (the white and purple kind):
The finished sauce, just made:
The original recipe uses a half cup of fish sauce and some optional fresh basil.
To make a single serving, combine:
½ teaspoon each:
- minced garlic
- minced peeled fresh ginger
- minced scallion
- minced fresh hot red chili
1 Tablespoon best quality wheat-free, gluten-free fish sauce
1 Tablespoon minced cilantro
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Stir together and serve right away before the cilantro loses its fresh green color.
Someone among your guests will demand this recipe, and you will use it again and again, as we have for over 20 years. Fresh basil and mint would be obvious choices for changing the flavor, if you wish to experiment.
[i] Titcomb, Margaret, and Mary Kawena Pukui. Native use of Fish in Hawaii. 2d ed. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1977.1972. Print.
[ii] Vehling, Joseph Dommers. Cookery and dining in imperial Rome: a bibliography, critical review, and translation of the ancient book known as Apicius de re coquinaria : now for the first time rendered into English. New York: Dover Publications, 1977. Print.
[iii] “Fish sauce producers.” Living In Roman London. Museum of London, n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2011. <www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Collections-Research/Research/Your-Research/Londinium/Lite/classifieds/sauce.htm>.
[iv] “Fish Sauce (Garum) Ancient Roman Recipe.” Celtnet – Resources for the Celticist, Recipes, Medicine and Much More. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Aug. 2011. <//www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/roman/fetch-recipe.php?rid=roman-garum>.
[v] David, Elizabeth. Spices, salt and aromatics in the English Kitchen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970. Print.
[vi] Claiborne, Craig, and Pierre Franey. Craig Claiborne’s The new New York times Cookbook. New York: Times Books, 1979. Print.
- At the Roman Table