Some friends had lovingly introduced us to Swedish surströmming (see this story). As a matter of returning a favor, we exposed them a little later to our experiments in Indonesian cooking. One of the recipes that I tried on one of these occasions was Bandeng bumbu ketjap, according to the Dutch-Indonesian Keijner cookbook (I have also posted here about this book).
Bandeng is Milkfish. I must admit that I do not know its taste. Everyone says that mackerel is a good substitute for Bandeng. On the other hand, it seems rather unlikely to me that mackerel works as a substitute for anything else than mackerel.
In any case, there was no Bandeng in Borås at the time, so I did take mackerel for this recipe. I managed to get some really fresh specimens, too. The original recipe wants us to stamp 6 red, 4 white onions and 8 small Chili peppers (those that sometimes are called Thai peppers) to a pulp, which we then fry in butter (another recipe uses coconut oil instead). Now we add a cup of water, a few tablespoons of Indonesian soy sauce, salt and lemon juice, put the fish into the sauce, cover the pan and cook everything until the fish is done. The sauce should not reduce too much.
For our Swedish guests, I made an emergency-room-avoidance version with not quite as many onions and peppers. The soy sauce I used was the excellent Indonesian sweet soy (kecap manis) of the ABC brand. Before putting them into the pan, I cut the whole, cleaned mackerels with a sharp knife into chunks. This may seem a bit rustic but it keeps the fish manageable when turning and helps the sauce to come in contact with more fish surface. I do admit that I was a little doubtful about the mackerel myself and that I had prepared some other, safer, things as well. But my worries were unfounded, the dish was very good and our guests left in a happy mood.
At that time, I already knew that the quality of one’s food is influenced by the quality of the ingredients, but I still thought that a careful and loving preparation was more important. So one day, when I was alone at home with my two beautiful children (then about four and seven years old), I felt confident to, again, prepare mackerel bumbu ketjap. This time, however, I had only access to a package of frozen brick-shaped mackerel fillets, the onions in the pantry were huge and rough and the soy sauce was of some unknown off-brand.
I thawed the fish. I did my onion and pepper pulping ballet, heated some oil in a large pan, and began frying the onion and pepper goo. The first two smells that established themselves in my kitchen were that of hot and harsh onions and of quite old fish oil. They always say that the fish is freshly caught and frozen right on the trawler, but who knows what they do with it first, and how long they do it. I put the kitchen fan on high.
Now I poured the soy sauce into the pan. A solid cloud, smelling of boiling cheap molasses, rose from the stove, by-passed the kitchen fan and, carrying a rich bouquet of sulfuric onion notes along with it, slipped out of the door and up the stairs.
Jessica came downstairs and made a face of utter disbelief. – What are you doing? This stinks!
Oh don’t worry, it is going to be good, I said (airily). I’m going to cook this fish. You do like fish, don’t you?
Ick, said Jessica and left the kitchen.
My next step was to add the lemon juice and to put the fish into the sauce. I covered the pan, adjusted the heat and cooked everything until done, tasted a small bite of fish, and then the whole content of the pan went straight into the bag under the counter. I tightly knotted its plastic handles, carried it out and down the hill to the trash can, and made spaghetti.
This was the last time that I prepared something first and pitched it afterwards. Nowadays, if a cauliflower has a smell of cow dung in turpentine under its airtight plastic wrapping, I do no longer waste my time and olive oil to save this zombie. If a thawing bit of fish starts smelling like the cod liver oil that we once bought and then never used: no fish that day. If an avocado is so fresh that I need a jackhammer to make guacamole – you get the idea.