At least once or twice a week I will open up my lunchbox and find salted fish among the usual suspects like boiled eggs doused in chili paste, fried cubes of tofu and the ever-present mound of white rice. The salty snacks can range from fish that look like your basic minnow to more prehistoric-looking swimmers such as the ones pictured above. The dried fish that I find in my lunchbox are usually 2-5 centimeters long and have been salted and dried whole (bones, fins and all), usually in the sun.
I generally avoid them when they are arranged in pile, rather than as part of a sauce, because up until now, I really wasn’t entirely sure how I was supposed to eat them. I assumed that they were to be eaten as a munchie, kind of like a potato chip, but the idea of it has always kind of freaked me out. I mean, look at those things, they are intimidating! Today, however, I picked one up, examined it and popped it into my mouth. The result?
Bones? No problem. Fins? Pfft, child’s play. The truth is, the entire fish is so small that everything has the same crunchy consistency whether flesh, bone or fin. The issue? Salt. Holy crap. The moment I bit into the brittle bugger my saliva glands went crazy and I found myself desperately reaching for the nearest bottle of water. I must have been wrong, there’s no way that someone could stomach that much salt and eat those fish by the handful. Right?
After posing the question to one of my Indonesian co-workers, I was informed that the fish are, in fact, to be eaten in the same manner as a potato chip or a cheese curl.
So you might wonder why all the salt? Based on personal experience, Indonesians are prone to adding more salt or sugar to any given dish than I would consider palatable. That being said, like so many things here, the preparation method started for practical reasons. It keeps the fish from spoiling. Keep in mind, unlike the western world, refrigeration isn’t something that everyone has access to in Indonesia. Pair this with the high heat and humidity characteristic to most of the archipelago and the result is an environment ripe for food contamination. Additionally, salted fishes aren’t just for popping into your mouth by the handful, they can also be found in soups, stir fry dishes and various rice recipes.
I like to champion myself as being someone who will try anything. At the very least, I gues I can say that I’ve tried the salty fishes, but that’s about it because I definitely don’t plan on keeping them in my cupboard in place of my Lays potato chips.