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The Thai Fish-Eating Tradition

While India has a Vegetarian Tradition, S/E Asia has a Fish-Eating Tradition

by Kasma Loha-unchit

The cuisines of Southeast Asia favor fish. Not only do most of the countries border long stretches of coastline, the heart of the region sits on a fertile drainage basin traversed by a vast network of rivers and waterways that have blessed the land with an abundance of freshwater fish, as well as freshwater crustaceans and mollusks.

Even in landlocked areas of mainland Southeast Asia, fish has constituted a major source of food for centuries and is regarded as second only to rice in importance. It is said that both come with the water; therefore, they belong together as an indivisible pair. To many country folk, to eat rice is to eat fish, and vice versa. Indeed, this region is known to be one of the richest in the world for freshwater fish. Early western explorers who pioneered into the area, including Marco Polo, described the fish here as "among the best in the world" in the journals they kept and letters they sent home to their families and associates.

In this wet, monsoon-drenched region, fish can be found everywhere during the rainy season that stretches over more than half the year – in the rivers, streams, canals, ponds, lakes, flooded fields and rice paddies, and even in temporary mudholes and puddles left after a downpour. Villagers catch enough to eat fresh and to dry, salt, pickle, and preserve for the remainder of the year.

I still recall with great fondness my own childhood experiences with the abundance that flows in with the monsoon waters. Whenever a big storm brought flash floods, my brothers and I wasted no time rushing out into our front yard and, even onto the city streets, to catch fish. The water was clear and fish were everywhere, even in the smallest puddles! During school break, we frequently would go down to the nearby pond and take turns running a cloth net that mother had sewn around a rattan hoop, in the swelling waters to scoop up tiny, transparent shrimp. Each fun-filled day playing in the life-giving waters culminated with a scrumptious supper of deliciously fresh fish and heavenly crisped shrimp cakes!

While India has its vegetarian tradition, Southeast Asia has its fish-eating tradition. Indeed, there is no true vegetarian tradition in the region as fish sauce, shrimp paste, pickled and dried fish, and other seafood-based products and sauces provide the essential flavoring ingredients indispensable to the region's cuisines and inseparable from the region's cultures. (The limited number of strictly vegetarian dishes found in these countries are Chinese influenced. Ironically, the Chinese also introduced slaughterhouses and the consumption of red meats in fairly recent times.)

Unlike meats, eating fish is not regarded as taking life as it is a food freely given by the nature spirits and nurturing deities; fish come miraculously with the life-giving waters and are seen as willingly swimming into fish traps and nets to give sustenance to the people. In rural farming communities, the rice goddess, who is the great provider of nourishment, is often depicted surrounded by lotus blossoms and fish.

Among innumerable varieties of freshwater fish commonly found in the countryside is a very tasty fish known in English as either "mudfish" or "serpent head fish" for obvious reasons. This good-eating fish loves to slitter about in muddy canals and waterways and in flooded rice paddies, eventually finding its way into many different kinds of dishes to serve up at dinner. One delicious preparation is to fry the fish to a crisp, then top with a spicy and limy, aromatically seasoned mixture of toasted rice, roasted chillies, and fragrant herbs so typically used in Southeast Asian cooking.

If you love the flavors and healthfulness of fish and seafood, and delight in the spicy, tangy, and refreshing herbal flavors of Southeast Asian cuisines, look for more inspirational ideas and recipes in my book on seafood cooking, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood. Although now out of print, you should still be able to find a second-hand copy at many places where used books are sold.

See also: A Seafood Culture.

Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit. All rights reserved.

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