Fermented Meat? Why Not?

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Samhap, the Korean platter of three flavors (kimchi, braised pork, and fermented fish). Maangchi’s secret ingredient for making the pork brown and savory is instant coffee powder.

The cartilaginous fish (sharks and rays), whose skeletons are made of rubbery cartilage, are a far more ancient lineage than the bony fishes, whose skeletons are made of, uh…..bone. Thus, biologically speaking, these ancient critters tend to be a bit weird. For instance, instead of having a urinary tract, some cartilaginous fish expel uric acid like sweat, directly through their skin. When fermented, the uric acid in their flesh breaks down into ammonia, which has powerful preservative properties; extremely valuable for ancient peoples living in the cold maritime environments where these fish are found. The only downside is the distinctive smell of all that ammonia, which is kind of like, uh….piss.

One of these stinky, urea-excreting cartilaginous fish is the Greenland shark (which in Inuit mythology was said to live in the sea goddess’s chamberpot*). Another is the flat, stingray-like spotted skate. In different parts of the world, both animals are similarly fermented into a strongly-flavored delicacy.** Icelanders ferment Greenland shark into hákarl, while Koreans ferment skate into hongeo.

Hongeo has been produced in Korea since the 14th century, when the skate’s unusual preservative properties were first noted, making it the only fish that could be transported long distances without salt.

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I didn’t make this hongeo myself, but it’s uncommon enough outside of Korea that I knew I had to buy it as soon as I saw it in a Korean grocery store. Technically a type of hoe (Korean sliced raw fish, pronounced hway), it’s traditionally eaten raw in thin slices. It is often served alongside makgeolli (Korean rice liquor, which I’ve made and written about on this blog before), and with kimchi and braised pork (bossam) in a platter called samhap, “three flavors.” I had freshly-made kimchi in my fridge, so all I had to do was make the pork and a sweet/sour cabbage pickle to make wraps of the three (using Maangchi recipes).

Turns out the smell of hongeo is ASTOUNDING. Pure ammonia. It was also unexpectedly hard to remove from the cartilage, requiring a very sharp knife (what term does a chef use in this situation? Decartilage?) I was skeptical at first, but the taste is not too overwhelming and reminds me of a blue cheese (although the ammonia sure does clear your sinuses), with the chew of raw fish, since that’s exactly what it is. And along with the other ingredients it was a really delicious combination. 3/3 points for the 3 flavors.

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I also made a sweet/sour cabbage quick pickle to make wraps of the three flavors.


* Sedna, the Inuit sea goddess, is one of my favorite mythological figures ever. Her story is a tale of survival and triumph in the face of adversity, in which an unassuming girl gets screwed over and even physically harmed by men (including her own father), only to end up becoming the ruler of the entire ocean. She is also the only non-Greco-Roman deity with a planet in our solar system named after her.

** In Greenland, a species of small seabird called the little auk is also fermented whole into a similar delicacy called kiviaq. I am not sure if these birds have a high uric acid content in their flesh like the shark and ray discussed here, but the kiviaq recipe apparently only works with little auks, and attempts to make kiviaq with other bird species can attract dangerous botulinum bacteria.

Tilapia Stew with Barley (Egyptian, ca. 3500 BCE)

img_2848.jpg“I behold the tilapia in its true nature, guiding the speedy boat in its waters.”
~ From The Book of Coming Forth Into the Light, better known as The Book of the Dead, 2nd or 1st millennium BCE

In a prehistoric Egyptian tomb of the fourth millennium BCE, archaeologists unearthed a rare surprise. Unlike the carefully dissected mummies of later Egyptian history, whose innards were cleansed and removed to canopic jars, one of the bodies in this early tomb had its digestive system intact, complete with stomach contents. Analysis revealed the last meal of this early Egyptian: a simple soup of barley, green onion, and tilapia.

Today, tilapia has achieved fame for its versatility and economy as a food source. The fish breeds quickly in captivity, can tolerate cramped conditions, and eats almost anything plant-based, making it cheap and easy to farm. Its mild white flesh is inoffensive to palates unaccustomed to seafood and readily accepts a range of seasonings. After carp, tilapia is the world’s most-commonly farmed fish, riding a wave of popularity that took off in the 1980s and shows no sign of slowing down. But thousands of years ago in Egypt, the fish simply called in was already being raised in enclosed ponds and captured with nets and spears from the life-giving Nile River. The tilapia species most-commonly eaten today is still known, appropriately, as the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).

 

The Greek historian Herodotus remarked in 440 BCE how much the Egyptians cherished their animals. They let them sleep in their homes, mourned them when they died, and worshipped them as living gods. It’s no surprise then that the Nile tilapia was featured in Egyptian culture, art and religion as prominently as in the Egyptian diet. A popular shape for bottles and makeup palettes, tilapia was represented by its very own hieroglyphK1. The fish was believed to help guide the Boat of the Sun as it sailed across the sky, as in the above quote from The Book of the Dead, a compendium of magic spells for ushering spirits to the afterlife. Tilapia was also associated with Hathor, the goddess of love and women, and considered a symbol of fertility and renewal. Such lofty significance may have stemmed from a misinterpretation of tilapia behavior. When danger threatens, the tiny baby fish swim into their mother’s mouth for protection (a phenomenon called mouth-brooding, also observed in other fish species). Ancient people who saw tilapia fry emerging from mom’s mouth may have believed the adult fish was miraculously creating the babies.

Egyptians would not have recognized today’s supermarket tilapia, white, cleaned and vacuum-sealed. Not only did the Egyptians consume every part of the fish, they ate only the dark tilapia now referred to as “wild-type.” The color of a tilapia has no effect on its flavor, but because many modern consumers prefer white fish, commercial fisheries now rely on pinkish “red tilapia.” These fish have been selectively bred for a genetic lack of pigment called leucism, the same mutation which produces white tigers. And the modification of farmed tilapia doesn’t stop with their genes. Keeping these ancient symbols of fertility in mixed-sex groups leads to unmanageable population growth, so today’s farmers give the sexless baby tilapia food laced with hormones, causing most of them to develop into males.

THE RECIPE

IMG_2855This recipe is modified from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006), one of my favorite sources for reconstructed ancient recipes. The original Egyptian stew this recipe was based on contained bones, fins and scales, but for the pictures above I was only able to obtain cleaned tilapia fillets. If you can find yourself a whole tilapia or a similarly mild white fish like catfish or sea bream, use it. As a wise woman (Maangchi) once said, don’t be afraid of fishbones, especially in soup! They add extra flavor, and when fish is properly cooked the meat falls off the bone easily.

Fish farms contribute to water pollution and the spread of fish diseases, but some have less of an impact than others. Tilapia farmed in the USA, Canada and Ecuador are the most ecologically friendly choice.

-1/2 cup barley
-3 cups water
-4 scallions/green onions, washed and sliced (use the entire scallion, including the root. The roots will give more flavor to the soup and will be removed before serving, taking another page from Maangchi’s book.)
-2 tilapia fillets or 1 whole, cleaned tilapia (or similar white fish)
-salt to taste

Rinse the barley and place in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, add just the roots of the scallions, and simmer for 30 minutes. Use a spoon to skim off any foam that rises to the top (excess starch from the barley).

Remove the scallion roots. Cut the tilapia into chunks (if you’re using a whole fish, keep the skin, bones and fins). Add the fish to the water and cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the rest of the scallions and cook for 5 minutes more.

Taste and add salt as needed. Serve hot.

THE VERDICT

The fish releases some oil into the soup, and I find that it doesn’t need much seasoning to taste delicious, though you could also add garlic, butter or spices. It’s a simple, hearty meal that will have you landing solidly in Ancient Egypt.