Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
This is a guest post from Nikki Steele. Nikki is a freelance writer and editor that runs BookPairing.com, a blog about pairing wine and beer with books in order to show how one can make the other so much better. When she’s not writing, you can find her in the kitchen, cutting vegetables and creating stock, or roughing around outside with her two mutts. Connect with Nikki on Twitter @BookPairing.
Let me just set the scene. We were in a college apartment with Ikea sofas, brick walls, an out of control cat, and a countertop nicked from years of use as a cutting board. I was attempting to cook Thai curry for the first time. Mind you, I hadn’t even graduated to roasted chicken level, but I was going to cook Thai food because I had dated a guy from Thailand once and liked pad thai, which made me an expert. Right?
I cranked that burner up and let the wok get nice and hot. The fish sauce came from a local Asian market, but I had been overwhelmed with all of the options and somehow came away with something that looked more like fish puree—eye bits still floating around and all.
Regardless, I mixed the fish sauce with some minced garlic and ginger, swirled a nice drizzle of oil in the pan, waited for that to get hot, and threw in the fish sauce mixture.
And then DISASTER.
Let’s go back two paragraphs to the nice and hot wok part. I was working on an ill-tempered, half-demon of a stovetop that we had barely used since moving in. When I threw that garlic, ginger, and pulverized fish mixture in the wok, it immediately turned into a blackened, charred mess with a stench that swept through the apartment with a hell’s fury.
The only one who was happy in the scenario was the cat that got to walk around an apartment that smelled like fish for the next three weeks.
After that, I vowed to never again touch fish sauce. I continued to eat and love Thai food, but pretended that it didn’t contain fish sauce out of fear that the thought alone would trigger my gag reflex.
I cooked more in the years that followed. I realized that cooking is just as much about understanding food itself as it is about following a recipe. I learned how to build a meal from spare parts. I made roasted chicken (at the end of a busy workday, with pearls on, natch). But I still didn’t attempt Thai food again, even though my love for it grew as the years went by.
It grew so much that my husband and I decided to go to Thailand for our honeymoon—for the food just as much for the beaches and elephants. We stayed at a small bed and breakfast that was run by an amazing woman named Ann. Ann was up at 5 AM cooking breakfast for the guests, spent the days creating flower arrangements and weaving, and after dinner, would head out to the night markets to find the most perfect mangosteens and jack fruit for the next day.
At the end of our stay, we took a cooking class with Ann. Even though her English was good, it was only once we got to food—to the touching and the smelling—that we really communicated, slipping easily into the routine that every kitchen knows so well. Language became secondary to those movements—the knife handed over, the pause as she showed us how to cut lemongrass correctly, or stopped to turn our wrists the right way to really use the mortar and pestle.
Near the end, she pulled out the fish sauce. Now that I better understood food, asking her not to put the fish sauce in would have seemed as illogical as asking somebody not to salt potatoes or not to add the onions to the skillet first. It was the way this meal was supposed to be built—the fish sauce as integral to the complex flavor as the lemon grass or chilies.
I watched as she added it, later tasted it, and knew that it couldn’t have been made any other way. For this dish, it shouldn’t be made any other way. That’s when I gave up on my battle against fish sauce and let it back into my kitchen pantry, and into the food