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Zak Pelaccio Travelogue 3
May 17, 2012
Budu Love, or how I learned to love pungent flavors
In Malaysia, pungent aromas rule the north. Particularly pungent are the regions of Kelantan and Terengganu. Adjacent to the South China Sea, these rural regions have developed affection for fermenting the great bounty of seafood not immediately destined for ikan bakar (grilled fish) or other cooking methods. I have long been a fan of fish sauce, belecan (dried shrimp paste) and even cincalok (the fermented little krill stuffed in a bottle) but regular consumption of these products does not quite prepare one for the bouquet of the budu, Malaysia’s version of fish sauce. The stuff smells of fish guts left on the docks for several days then buzzed in a blender and bottled. This is nose to tail dedication, a method pioneered by the poor, out of necessity, and now embraced by the masses, or, at least the masses inhabiting the towns and cities on the short strip of the Malay Peninsula.
I had come across budu before, but never in this quantity and never eaten with such gusto, unadorned. Years ago I included budu in a recipe Jori, Corwin and I cooked for an event in Kuala Lumpur. It was a crispy chicken salad served over rice seasoned with a scant amount of kecap manis and budu. It was delicious and the budu provided a complex, salty bass note, hardly the first trumpet. So when I watched these northern Malays pouring a bottle over their grilled shrimp, I first gagged, and then I began to wonder. Jori and I purchased several bottles in the central market of Kota Bahru with which we intended to experiment.
We wrapped the bottles in newspaper and then tied them up in 3 layers of plastic bags. Budu is that special type of toxic substance that if it were to spill in your trunk, you’d be forced to abandon your car.
We drove down the coast into Terengganu, which borders Kelantan to the south, our budu safely stored. That evening, I went to the pasar melam (night market) and purchased all sorts of grilled and fried items. I returned with my booty and Jori and I spread it out and unwrapped a bottle of budu. A little drizzle here, a little drizzle there, it was not terrible. It is more assertive than fish sauce and muddier than cincalok. I just could not understand going beyond a drizzle, though. I attributed the reckless use of budu that I had witnessed in Kelantan to a high tolerance and cultural phenomenon like we have with ketchup. And in that, I may be correct, although the grand experiment had yet to come.
A friend took us to lunch the next day. On the drive, Jori and I discussed our recent discovery of the regional obsession with budu. He smiled and looked sideways at us and asked quietly, “And can you eat the budu?”
As if we were discussing a perversion, I fidgeted and quietly retorted, “Ah, um, well we’ve really just…”
“Good!” He interrupted and immediately made a U-turn and pulled into a parking lot in front of an ikan bakar stand. “We will eat ikan with budu!” he exclaimed with a smile, his day having apparently improved by our collective admission to having eaten this fish gut staple.
“Right on!” I cried meekly, wary of what was to come and considering my back-up lunch plan.
We piled our plates high with fish and sayur (vegetables) and seated ourselves at a long white table in the shade. Our friend came to the table, beaming, carrying a cutting board piled with fresh chiles, small limes, a bottle of budu and a small bowl filled with a yellow paste. I immediately knew what this was, or might I say assumed what this was and I laughed in disbelief. “Is that tempoyak?” I asked pointing at the yellow paste.
His smile grew uncomfortably large, “Yes! Do you know it?”
“Ah, yeah. It’s fermented durian. I’ve eaten sambal tempoyak several times. It’s ok with a lot of chiles and lime.” I inspected the bowl, raising it to my nose and inhaling the square root of pungency: an overripe durian, king of heady fruits, in the throws of fermentation. “Whew,” I whistled reflexively. Jori was observing the exchange closely, assessing whether this lunch would end up in the stomach or on the sidewalk.
“So, we pour the budu over the tempoyak, squeeze the lime and eat the chili…as you like. Ok?” our friend smiled, plucking a piece of fish with his fingers and dragging it through the brown and yellow “dip” that sat between us.
I dug in. I mean I really went for it. Fish, tempoyak, budu and chiles, all at once. I chewed and tasted and chewed some more. Not for the uninitiated. As I ate my meal I found myself alternating between dipping and not dipping. I began to understand the craving. When you’ve taken your palate to the edge of assertive, acidic, pungent and hot flavors, you need to return. You don’t just go there once. I would return to that combination and then recoil, return, recoil.
Although it doesn’t hold a place in my regular pantry, I find myself longing for that strong flavor, for the sourness of fermenting durian. Budu introduced me to the pleasures of walking the gustatory line.
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