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Sublime in ITS STINK

Museum Siam is serving 'Rotten Food', but alas the pla ra is made of paper

Museum Siam has ventured out on a culinary limb with its new exhibition "Kin Kong Nao". If you want to "Eat Rotten Food", the queue starts

here - assuming there is a queue.

In fact the "rotten food" on this tummy-challenging tour is the stuff that's fermented, preserved and pickled to make it last longer and boost flavour. Plus, the tongue-in-cheek show is a lot of fun, and Thais, after all, worship the goodies under discussion.

The museum has set up a posh restaurant - dimly lit with white linen, bone china and shiny silverware on the tables. There's a glass-walled cellar stocked not with wine but fish sauce, pickled vegetables and the mighty pla ra in all its celebrated vintages.

A well-trained waiter in a black apron will give you a menu of stinky dishes. Will it be the usual today, sir? Somtam poo pla ra (spicy papaya salad with salted crab and fermented fish), or pla som (sour fermented fish), or khamom jeen namya pa (lightly fermented rice noodle in fish-based curry sauce)? Perhaps some kaeng hang le (stewed pork curry with rancid bean) for a change?

Unfortunately, now that he's whetted your appetite, it turns out there is no food. What you get is a paper cut-out of the dish you order. On the back is an explanation in Thai and English of why your favourite food is considered "rotten".

Not very filling but, you know what they say - food for thought.

Celebrity chef Chakrit Yamnam mans the open kitchen in video form, cooking green chicken curry. "The secret to building up the flavour and odour of the curry is kapi, the shrimp paste - a kind of rotten ingredient," he narrates.

Kapi promotes the pungency of many curry pastes as well as nam prik, the chilli paste. Millions of tiny shrimp called krill that might otherwise be feeding an enormous blue whale are mashed up for kapi and, to get rid of the shrimplets' nastier microbes, salt is added and it's dried in the sun. You don't want to get rid of all the microbes, though - you keep the ones that are the key to the taste and smell.

A buffet bar offers more food that would stink if it weren't made of paper. There's naem (pickled pork sausage), nam prik ong (northern-style pork and tomato dip), nam prik kapi (shrimp-paste chilli dip), pickled ginger and Isaan sour pork sausage.

"Most of the food we eat is digested or processed by bacteria," explains Manop Issaree, deputy director of the National Science Museum.

"It's amazing how they invented different methods of preserving food before refrigeration became common. They didn't know what bacteria and enzymes were or what chemical reactions were taking place. They made their discoveries through experimentation and careful observation.

"Traditional Thai wisdom in food preservation evolved from simple science," Manop says. "They learned how to eliminate some of the pathogens using sunlight, heat and chemicals like salt and sugar and also enabled bacteria to multiply rapidly to suppress pathogens that could cause disease."

This inherited talent for germs has led to the popular belief that the best somtam comes from the filthiest vendor's cart on the street. Museum Siam curator Taweesak Woraritrueangurai shares the common opinion that the smelliest food - even thoroughly rotten things like pla ra - is truly delectable.

"It might smell terrible but it still tastes great," he says.

"The process of making pla ra starts with cleaning a freshly caught fish, taking out the guts, soaking it in water overnight and then mixing in salt and roasted rice. They put the concoction in a jar and store it for at least six months - if you eat it too early it can upset your stomach."

Pla som, on the other hand, requires about three days' fermentation after the fish is stuffed with cooked rice and salt to let the bacteria change the carbohydrates in the rice into lactic acid and kill any dangerous microbes.

The exhibition casts a wider eye across the region, revealing that pla ra is enjoyed in Cambodia as pla ra prahok, in the Philppines as bagoong, in Vietnam as mam, in Malaysia as pekasam or belacan, in Indonesia as bakasang, in Myanmar as ngapi and in Laos as pla daek. And they say Asean countries have nothing in common!

Nam pla is called the same in Laos, nuoc nam in Vietnam, patis in the Philippines, tuk trey in Cambodia and ngan bya yae in Myanmar.

Meanwhile our northern dishes depend on tua nao, the rancid bean. Boiling the beans kills all the microbes except for Bacillus subtilis, which appreciates the hot bath so much that its enzymes thrive to turn the bean protein rancid.

The softened beans are put in a bamboo basket and covered with leaves for three days so the bacteria can work its gooey magic.

"The stinky, sticky odour of the beans doesn't mean they're foetid," Taweesak points out. "It's the substance that's built up by this bacteria, which is a good, desirable substance."

The museum has "a walkway through a refrigerator" to pose a question about the logical necessity of eating rotten food when we all have this appliance in our kitchens.

The stroll takes you to another hall set up like a fresh market, and it's stocked with actual ingredients, not paper ones. And it stinks, gloriously so.

Like everything else, venerable pla ra has been modernised. You can buy vacuum-packed pla ra and find it in convenient powder and cube form. The market has all the salted fish, pickled vegetables, shrimp pastes, chilli pastes and yoghurt you could possible need.

"These stinky foods have become our 'signature dishes'," says Taweesak. "The more rotten the food, the more desirable its taste. The natural process sometimes just makes the taste better, even unique."

FOLLOW YOUR NOSE

<< "Kin Kong Nao" continues until November 4.

<< Museum Siam is on Sanam Chai Road near Tha Tien and open daily except Monday from 10am to 6pm.

<< Find out more at (02) 225 2777 and www.MuseumSiam.com.

<< See video at www.Nationmultimedia.com/video/ or www.Facebook.com/Sunday Leisure The Nation


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