Doing Fieldwork on Fermented Foods in the World

(Mar.22-Sep.24, 2022, Nagoya University Museum)

Part 3. Fermented foods as seasonings

In Japan, miso, soy sauce, vinegar and mirin made from rice and soybeans are used as important fermented seasonings that give washoku (Japanese fare) its flavor. In Southeast Asia, though, rather than seasonings produced from grains, fermented seasonings from seafoods, such as fish sauce, are frequently used. In addition, natto, a side dish in Japan, is also used as a seasoning there. The ingredients used in fermented seasonings vary regionally, but seasonings in the Asian food culture zone, where rice is the staple food, are characterized by the demand for the savory “umami” flavor arising from fermentation.

Chapter 5. Tastes changing through modernization and globalization: Seasoning culture in Thailand*

In the food cultures of the world, there are broadly two regions where fermented foods are used as the principal seasonings. These are sub-Saharan Africa, where fermented seasonings from seeds and fruits are used, and Southeast and East Asia, where fermented sauces are made from fish, beans, and grains. The food cultures and seasonings cultures of each part of the world underwent immense changes in the Age of Exploration and have continued to onward into modern times through modernization and globalization. Here, let us take a look at the transformation of fermented seasonings in Thailand.

■ Modern seasonings

The seasoning cultures in all parts of the world have been changing greatly as a result of the Age of Exploration and through modernization and globalization. In recent years new seasonings have come into wide use in Thailand, including tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, nam pla (fish sauce), nam man hoi (oyster sauce), see ew khao (light soy sauce), umami seasonings and sugar.

Nam pla is currently known as the standard seasoning in Thailand, but in fact its history there is recent, with its production and marketing spurred by immigrants from China during the early 20th century and said to have started from the central Thailand, Chon Buri Province and spread throughout the country. The taste of Thai cuisine continues to change greatly through the advent of new seasonings, cooking methods, uses of ingredients, recipes, and so on.

■ Umami seasonings

Umami seasonings are flavorings that have savory components such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) as their main ingredient. They became popular in Thailand in the 1970s. That time was a period of notable changes in dietary habits among the people due to economic development, industrialization, urbanization, and other factors. When the use of umami seasonings began to spread in Thailand, it was perceived not merely as a “sweet” delicious flavor, but as a high-quality Japanese product and a valuable, rare seasoning from the cities.

■ Traditional fermented seasonings and flavors

In modern day Thailand, the usage of modern seasonings is combined with that of traditional fermented seasonings. Most traditional fermented seasonings have unique tastes and flavors, different people have distinct preferences within Thailand. These preferences differ enormously depending on what region individuals hail from, if it was urban or rural, their ethnicity and their roots. The complex flavors of traditional fermented seasonings and their diversity stand in contrast with the standardized tastes of modern seasonings.

■ Global fermented foods and local fermented foods

As to reasons for the global popularity of fermented foods, in addition to the complex flavors that fermentation brings about, such as umami and tartness, they provide health and beauty benefits. The health benefits of fermented foods have been noted particularly in Thailand. Kimchee, tempeh, yogurt drinks, and other fermented foods new to the Thai are also called “ahan klin” (clean foods). On the other hand, not a few people think Thailand’s traditional fermented foods are bad for their health. The reason for that is the amount of salt and sugar contained in items such as fish sauce and pickles. In response, fermented foods with reduced salt content have been developed recently.

* The English title has slightly been changed from the panel.