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The Birth of Seafood

Chapter 2, part 3, from Dancing Shrimp

by Kasma Loha-unchit

With coastal waters so abundantly endowed, it would seem that fresh fish, crustaceans, and mollusks from the sea would naturally have constituted a major source of food for the Thai people since time immemorial. Actually, the mass consumption of fresh marine creatures is a relatively recent development in the country's seven-hundred-year history, and in world history.

In fact, the word seafood was not even coined until the nineteenth century – by Americans – to group in one word all edible marine creatures, including fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Initially, the English adamantly objected to this all-inclusive word to describe such a vast array of marine life but, in the end, the word caught on, and, by the close of World War II, it had become widely accepted. Like other languages, the Thai word for seafood, ah-hahn talay, most probably came from a literal translation of the American term, although it was not clear when this was first adopted.

Prior to the development of technology which made ice readily available, the consumption of fresh seafood was by necessity limited to populations in coastal towns and to seafood caught in waters in close proximity to shoreline (that is, shallow-water fish, mostly smaller varieties), which must be served the same day in order to be fresh. Because seafood spoiled rapidly without ice and refrigeration, especially in the tropics, most fish caught far out at sea were salted, dried, or pickled to preserve them from spoiling during the hours that it would take fishing boats to return to shore. Keeping them alive in tanks of cool seawater would be an alternative, but it was far from practical in terms of labor, space, equipment required, and cost.

For centuries, the preservation of food by salting, drying, pickling, or smoking was commonplace in cultures worldwide, and was applied not only to seafood, but also to meats and vegetables. Well-known examples that come to mind include salt-cured and smoked ham, beef jerky, corned beef, salt cod, preserved anchovies, pickled herring, and smoked salmon. In Thailand, a wide variety of seafood had, for generations, been preserved by salting, drying, and pickling. Many of these traditional seafood products continue to be staple foods and indispensable flavoring ingredients in today's Thai kitchen. Among them are fish sauce, shrimp paste, dried shrimp and cuttlefish, salted and pickled crab and clams, and various kinds of salted, dried, and pickled fish.

It was not until the eighteenth century that ice was first made, and it took until the following century for the icebox to come into widespread use. The refrigerator made its debut in the second decade of the twentieth century, replacing the icebox in fairly recent history. The advent of the icebox, followed later by refrigeration units, made it possible for fishing vessels to keep their catch of ocean fish fresh until they reached retail markets, restaurants, and home kitchens. It was around this time when fresh seafood first became readily available, not just in coastal areas but also to inland population centers, that the word seafood was born in America – a country in which private capital made possible the rapid application of advances in technology to create a new breed of fishing vessels, railroad and trucking units, and supermarket counters.

Ice was imported into Thailand for the first time during the reign of King Rama V, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This was followed soon after by the establishment of domestic ice-production factories. Due to their high cost, refrigerators remained a luxury until the last few decades of the previous millennium, during which the Thai fishery industry expanded dramatically, and emerged as a significant supplier of frozen seafood products to the world.

Previous: (part 2) Fish Bridges  |  Next: (part 4) A Fish and Rice Culture

Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit in Dancing Shrimp. All rights reserved.

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