Traditional Fermented Fish Products

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Fermented foods currently comprise approximately one-third of the human diet globally. In traditional diets, cereal grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and fish are all fermented using various methods as a way to preserve food and to improve its nutritional quality.

An Ancient Practice

Fermentation of fish has historically and continues to be employed to preserve fish when other methods of preservation have failed. This method of extending the harvest was born of necessity as a way of coping with seasonal scarcity. Other methods to slow bacterial degradation such as drying, salting, smoking and curing require certain ambient air temperatures and levels of humidity to be successful. Under conditions that were either too wet for drying, or when these other methods were just not feasible, fish fermentation was developed as a needed solution.

Fermentation became especially important for species of fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, Arctic char, and herring, which are not very suitable for drying due to the presence of large amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids. In addition, fermentation developed as a way to preserve fish using less salt, as salt was expensive and generally scarce in ancient times.

The Process

The processes used in fish fermentation vary greatly worldwide, and depend on the culture, climate, and availability of both salt and fish. The species of fish and or shellfish that are fermented have always been determined by what is abundant in a given locale.

The acceptance of the aromas and taste of fermented fish sauces, pastes, and other fish food products is culturally specific. What tastes good is in part determined by familiarity and cultural upbringing as well as genetically determined taste preferences and aversions. Fermented fish products have been variously described as tasting “meaty,” “fishy,” “cheesy,” and “ammonialike.” The combination of the assorted chemical products of fermentation determines which flavors predominate.

Of all fermented foods, fermented meats and fish are the least stable, and present several challenges, such as the risk of contamination with pathogenic bacteria, namely Clostridium botulinum, and the formation of potentially toxic biogenic amines in the food product. These concerns are much more prevalent in fermented meat and fish than in other categories of fermented foods.

As fermentation expert Sandor Katz remarks in his book, The Art of Fermentation:

“Fermented fish can definitely force us to confront and perhaps challenge the slippery and elusive boundary between what is and is not fit to eat.”

Currently there is a resurgence of interest and a revival in traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, sourdough bread, kombucha and the like. Fermented fish products, while new to many, have a long history as health-giving, nutritious foods that impart unique flavors, aromas, textures, and nutrients to the diet. An overview of some of the more notable fermented fish products from around the world, as well as information regarding safety and health benefits, are reviewed here.

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