Talk about a clash of civilisations!
A recent tweet that went viral recalled an incident where a Malaysian housewife living in Paris and excited about receiving some belacan (shrimp paste) from home, decided to toast it prior to making a curry.
Her French neighbour called the police. He thought there might be a dead body next door.
The French should understand all about weird food. I mean, take the neighbour in question. Only the other day, she cooked Pancakes for breakfast.
OK, she was thrilled but you couldn’t say the same for her children. I mean, they were miserable and you couldn’t blame them.
Pancakes was their favourite rabbit.
The French loved defenceless animals especially in a creamy mushroom sauce. Interesting statistic: the French eat 500 million snails every year.
And they like things like rabbit and all parts of the cow including the brain, the udders and the tongue. In fairness, it must be pointed out that French cuisine is considered one of the best in the world.
More intriguingly, there is the French paradox. This was a famous 1980s observation that noted that the French people had a very low incidence of cardiovascular heart disease despite having a diet relatively high in butter and saturated fat.
The observation still holds true although the advent of fast food may have begun ruining a much-envied national trait.
But we were talking about strange smells. There are many things associated with smell. One wakes up and smells the coffee, for instance. And there are odours that you indelibly associate with freshness and all things nice. Like rain on parched earth, newly mowed grass, the sea: a childhood memory of a sudden scent of jasmine walking past the neighbour’s at night in Seremban.
And then, of course, there is the odour of belacan.
There is no getting around it. It is grim and very stern. What do you expect? It’s shrimp paste and as writer and humourist P J O’ Rourke once observed: “Fish is the only food that is considered spoiled once it smells like what it is.”
And even O’ Rourke could not have known that belacan is made from small shrimp that is crushed and salted and left to dry for several weeks until it stinks to high heaven.
Now you know the French neighbour was at least half right.
It’s like durian. Like Limburger or Stilton cheese, it’s an acquired taste if ever there was one.
While discussing the Paris incident on WhatsApp the other day, my friend Radzuan mentioned that some Malaysian students had to evacuate their apartment in Cumberland in a hurry after the Fire Brigade turned up just as they were about to have a feast of durian.
The neighbours thought there was a gas leak.
Thankfully, my daughter has never liked durian so it isn’t a staple in my house for which I am devoutly grateful. Food writer Adam Sterling once famously described the fruit’s odour as “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock.”
I confess that I am not quite Malaysian in my tastes. My wife is a Eurasian from Malacca and both she and my daughter love all food associated with belacan.
As for me, I love mankind: it’s prawns I can’t stand.