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Fermented fish is a type of dish wherein the fish undergoes a process of fermentation in which the acids used actually “cook” the fish and change its taste and texture. It is a staple food among the Eskimos and is also part of many Asian cuisines in Thailand, India, and Vietnam. Fermentation as a process for making food and wine has dated back to early times. Ancient Romans were even found to have fermented fish to create a salty sauce for their dishes.
The Eskimo community probably had fermented fish as a staple food because fish and other aquatic animals are their primary sources of food due to the lack of vegetation in cold temperatures. Fermented fish also do not require a person to build a fire, and they can be eaten long after they have been caught. Right after the fish is caught, it is placed on a 2-foot-deep (0.609 meter) hole in the ground, in which it will remain for at least two weeks, depending on the preference. The longer the fish is buried, the longer it will ferment, and the meat will become softer. When the fish is taken out of the ground, it is frozen right away to preserve it.
Fermenting was a good way to treat the fish considering the Eskimo hunters would usually go on hunting trips that could last for weeks or months. Through fermenting, the fish were still edible when the Eskimos reached home. Having a supply of fermented fish was probably a symbol of social status, especially during months when catches of fish are scarce.
In Thailand and Vietnam, the fish undergoes fermentation primarily to turn it into a condiment called “pla ra.” The caught fish would be immersed in a salty solution for some time, making the fish bones soft enough to be eaten as well. Pla ra is not only used as a condiment, but also as a viand, as the salty fish is a tasty accompaniment to a bowl of rice, not to mention cheap. Sometimes, the salty solution is separated from the fermented fish, which can then be fried, boiled, and curried, transforming the fish into another kind of dish.
It is said that the fermented fish is best served when it is still in its frozen state and when it is a little rare. It can be eaten as the main course, as a snack, or even as a desert. Sometimes, a little whale oil that is also fermented accompanies the fish, sort of like a condiment or a sauce.