I'm lucky enough to work in a non-profit organization with very a diverse and wonderful staff. Eating lunch in our break room is always an interesting culinary adventure. Almost every day for lunch, each one of us has different type of cultural or ethnic food. It's common that in one afternoon there will be Iraqi, Lao, Turkish, Ethiopian, Chilean, Ugandan, Mexican and Italian food- all at the same table. This is not the type of office where people are brown-bagging a turkey sandwich and an apple.
It's always exciting to see what everyone brings and to hear how they make it. We all automatically become foodies- the staff has no choice, it's just all so interesting. To me, the Ethiopian dishes always smell the best. I love Ethiopian food and the dishes in our lunch room usually consist of potatoes, greens, or cabbage with warm smelling unfamiliar spices that I can never put my finger on.
As you can tell, I view my co-workers lunch box contents very warmly and think of each day as a fun, world food experience. That was until today. Today has stunted my culinary curiosity. I hope this isn't permanent but I find myself longing for the scent of microwaved Lean Cuisines the elementary school PB&J's. I smelled a food so awful today that any time I recall its scent, I get goosebumps- seriously.
The food that destroyed my nasal passage and has left me in nauseous convulsions is called Pahdek. I can't think of how to best describe this edible concoction so I've decide to leave the details up to Wikipedia: "Padek is a traditional Laotian condiment made from fermented or pickled fish that has been cured. Often known as Laotian Fish Sauce, it is a thicker, seasoned fish sauce that often contains chunks of fish in it. The fermentation takes a long time, giving Padaek a rich aroma similar to fine cheeses..."
Let me start my rant by saying that I'm not a complete Asian food amateur, I know all about the complexity of fish sauce and how commonly used it is in many cuisines. But Lao fish sauce ain't no ordinary, slightly aromatic, mildly fishy sauce. This isn't the thin, clear fish sauce most of us Westerners are used to. This is a black, thick, insanely fowl smelling substance. I love my amazing Lao friend who excitedly explained to me this morning that she brought her favorite sauce to work. Next, she told me that her mom warned her not to bring the sauce to work and that she was nervous about how other staff members might judge its smell. "Who cares what they think!" I naively assured her, "It can't be that bad- we're used to all the random ethnic food smells!" Oh god, was I wrong. So, so wrong.
I consider myself to have a pretty open mind and invited my friend to open her sauce as we all ate together. The moment she cracked the lid I felt like I was slapped across the face with a dead body. " Oh my gosh, I'm sorry but that smells really strong," I commented trying to be as polite as possible.
"Wait no, that smells like VERY, strong. Wow, I don't think I can handle that being right next to me!" I said, then timidly asked my friend if she could try to keep the lid closed and move down a few seats.
Everyone at the table simply could not believe how intense this stuff smelled. Let me attempt to describe the many odors that create the intricate Lao fish sauce smell: dead fish (duh!), bile, blue cheese, vinegar, a polluted river, parmesan cheese, more fish and finally, a touch of garlic.
I learn something new about food every day in my office, but I never expected to become acquainted with smell of death in a busy San Diego non-profit. If you take anything away from this story, I hope it's that if you ever hear someone from Laos talking about Pahdek- You'll save yourself and start running away. Run farther and faster than you've ever ran before.
*image from: www.nowthatsnifty.blogspot.com/2009/07/298-condiments-from-around-world.html