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Of Dried Fish and Stinky Cheese

Posted by on 19 September 2008

durianI couldn’t help but laugh out loud while I was reading Francesca in France’s blog post about how her French husband turns up his nose at dried sardines but loves to eat mouldy cheese. By coincidence, I just happened to have enjoyed a lipsmacking breakfast of fried rice and dried fish that very same morning.

This is one downside to living or working in a foreign country: you don’t get to eat the foods that you like to eat or have been accustomed to ever since you were a child, or the foods that remind you of home. And I’d think that it’s the stinky foods that we miss the most, due to the simple reason that they’re just too difficult to bring in.

For Filipinos, dried fish should be somewhere at the top of the list (Tagalog: tuyo, Cebuano: bulad, Malay: ikan kering, Indonesian: ikan asin). Their smell is so strong that they can’t possibly go through any Customs officer anywhere in the world if you have them in your luggage. (If you’ve ever successfully smuggled a batch into any country elsewhere, I’m most curious to know how you did it!) Luckily for me, dried fish can easily be had in Malaysia as well as in Indonesia. Here in Malaysia, they’re even packed and sealed nicely in small plastic bags, unlike in the Philippines where they’re neatly stacked in woven baskets in the local palengke (wet market) for all the world to smell.

cincalokIn addition to dried fish, Malaysians also have cincalok, quite similar to the Filipino uyap (Cebuano) or alamang (Tagalog). Malaysians eat it with a squeeze of lemon and slices of shallots and chilli. Not for the faint-hearted. Or should I say, faint-nosed? ;) Not all Malaysians eat it and a lot of them are surprised that I actually love the stuff.

I’ve always associated alamang with mangoes. I don’t mean the sweet, bright yellow mangoes that Thais eat with coconut milk and sticky rice. I’m referring to the ones that are just ripe but still firm, with the skin usually still a bit green, so that when you peel it, you get a few green lines along the firm yellow orangey flesh. Manibalang. Yes, that’s the exact Tagalog term for that stage of ripeness. Woe to the foreigner who has a pregnant Filipina wife who craves for this delicacy! There is just no substitute for it — sweet and salty and slightly sour at the same time, with a tangy crispness to the bite.

buduThen there’s budu, very similar to the Filipino bagoong. But whereas bagoong comes with bits and pieces of fish, budu is only the murky, salty sauce that comes from the fermented concoction. Its smell is so strong, if you’re not used to it, I suppose you’d feel like you’ve been kicked by a mule. Me? I smell it and my salivary glands involuntarily shift to hyperdrive.

Filipinos can eat bagoong with plain rice but Malaysians usually associate budu with nasi kerabu, a dish popular in the East Coast, with its trademark blue rice (natural dye from a flower), green chilis stuffed with grated coconut, thin slices of roasted beef, chopped fresh veggies, and of course, some budu.

tempoyakAhh..then there’s tempoyak, which is fermented durian. If you think durian smells bad, imagine how it smells once it’s fermented. Malaysians usually eat it with shallots and chili, or cook it with a fatty type of river fish called ikan patin. I love durian. I love its sweet, creamy, custard-like flesh. But I wouldn’t go near tempoyak even with a ten-foot pole.

As for blue cheese, no offense meant but I’d have to say “No, thanks”! ;)

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