Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Fermented Shrimp Incident

This is the post where I gripe about my experience with Malay food. *WARNING* rant mode on*

I research Malay food and the restaurant itself. The customer reviews were great and so far everything I read seemed good. I convinced my friends to give the restaurant a try and off we went to dine there. We looked over the menu and asked the owner for advice. I settled on Belcan Okra (bamyah) with chicken. I love bamya and I eat chicken. The menu description stated that the dish is a stir-fry with a slightly spicy sauce served over white rice. Sound edible doesn't it? Well it was most definitely NOT!

While chatting with friends, munching on our lovely salad with ginger dressing, I smelled a horrendous stench right before the waiter brought my food. It took me a minute to realize the stench was coming from my table. How could such an awful smell come from food? Did they serve me something they found dead? Is there something stuck to the bottom of my plate or my shoes. I was dumbfounded. Meanwhile my friend, whose food wasn't great but certainly edible, was gloating. She told me not to try anything 'too weird.' I wondered if it was just me. Another friend of ours, one who eats absolutely anything wouldn't touch the dish. That's when I knew something was seriously wrong.

The food smelled like e77la (dried and salted fish) only 1000 times fouler! But my food wasn't seafood or was it? I ask the waiter what the red coating on my chicken was, and she said that it was coated with spices only. Surely, spices don't smell that bad??? I couldn't even eat the white rice and I finally asked that they remove it from the table and ordered something safe! Much to my surprise the owners/waiters got so offended and demanded to know why I did not enjoy the food. I couldn't exactly say 'well gee, it smells like ****!" They were genuinely offended and stunned that I did not like the dish.

When I went home, I googled my dish and whaddya know, good ol' wikipedia had an article on it. Here is what wikipedia had to say: "Belacan is a shrimp paste made from fermented ground shrimp, sun dried and then cut into fist-sized rectangular blocks. To many Westerners unfamiliar with this condiment, the smell can be extremely repulsive […] Belacan, a Malay variety of shrimp paste, is prepared from fresh tiny shrimp. These are mashed into a paste and buried for several months. Belacan is used as an ingredient in many dishes, or eaten on its own with rice […] the aroma from the frying mixture is unpalatable to most Westerner who have not become accustomed to it, but is an absolute delight to the Asian connoisseur." How could they not mention that?

They should've known that most people would not be able to eat the fermented shrimp. Serving it as part of their menu is their right and choice. However, it is very deceitful keeping this little fact from customers and misleading them. It is what makes the dish!
What if I was allergic to shellfish? I wish I knew what it was before leaving the restaurant; I would've faked a seizure and scared them all. I dropped more than 20 dinars on that awful food. Worse, I was embarrassed and felt like a criminal for not eating the food!

The next day I was relaying to my coworker about my horrible experience in the ladies room (ladies next time you engage in gossip in the WC check the stalls for legs!). One thing led to another and we start swapping our most disgusting food experiences. That definitely topped mine. Next thing I know, this girl comes out of one stalls (I didn’t even realize she was there) and says that as a Filipina she grew up eating the fermented shrimp paste and it is a delicacy. She stormed out all indignant while I stood mortified wishing the ground would open up and swallow me. I avoided that particular ladies room for days while I debated is I should apologize to her or if she should to me. I offended her that much was clear but she was the one eavesdropping. Once again, thanks to the stupid fermented shrimp I was made to feel like a culturally challenged twit!

My biggest gripe is not the food itself, but the deceit that surrounded it. Ok maybe the smell too!Ugh I feel like putting bu5oor just thinking about the smell. Ok, off I go, gotta get the stench off my mind.


Evil Odd said...

I came to realise that a lot of malay food had shrimp in it early on. Mainly because I am allergic to prawns/shrimps.

The thing is, whether its Laksa, Pad Thai, or some form of Mi Goreng - they'll all have a bit of shrimp paste in it. Most of the time it's okay, but it seems the dish you ordered was heavily drenched in it.

Yes, it does stink. It stinks to us to the same extent Laban stinks for others... or even Mahyawa ;)

Gardens of Sand said...

ooooh I love Mahyawa. The Belacan reminded me alot of e77la, only 1000 times smellier! The thing that got to me is not that the Belacan is fermented shrimp paste, but that they would not say that the dish was made with it. What if I were allergic??

SoulSearch said...

Its the same dilemma I have with sushi. I just can't bring myself to the fact that I could down raw fish. I just can't. I don't care how fancy it is, or how delicious it is, I just can't. Check out my tabouleh post!

Love ya.

Gardens of Sand said...

Oooh I hate sushi... does that make me unhip? I don't care. I can't bring myself to eat it. And SS, I love tabouleh, can't wait to try yours!

Chris said...

I don't think there was any 'deceit' intended... shrimp paste is used all over SE Asia, and when they say it has spices, that naturally includes shrimp paste to many Asian people. Certainly in Thailand it's in many dishes, as well as Nam Pla or Fish Sauce which is made with fermented anchovies. If you did have an allergy to shellfish, I'm sure you would have asked if the dish contained it, as you would if you had an allergy to nuts or anything else. Personally, I love it!