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Smelling the... Zephyrs?
April 17, 2012 9:34 PM   Subscribe

This last Monday millions of Egyptians, both Copt and Muslim, celebrated Sham el-Nessim (literally, "Smelling of the Zephyrs"), a holiday which falls on the Monday after Eastern Orthodox Easter. It supposedly dates back to Pharaonic times, when fish were offered to the Egyptian gods. Today, instead of offering it to the gods, Egyptians eat it, specifically a very specially fermented and salted concoction called feseekh ( فسيخ‎).

Feseekh is traditionally eaten with lettuce, boiled and colored eggs, (pita) bread (usually aish baladi [recipe]) and Egyptian onions (or, as Egyptians call them, onions!). Here's a video of people eating feseekh with all the fixins.

Feseekh is made from the grey mullet. The fish is dried out and allowed to intentionally ferment, then heavily salted and stored for months in a container (article with helpful visual).

Feseekh has an extremely strong flavor and smell which some people love and others hate.

It is in the same family as other fish preserved via fermentation, such as Hákarl, the garum of the ancient Romans and Greeks, Surströmming, or Narezushi (the old-style fermented version of sushi).

Along with the traditional form of feseekh made from mullet, the stinky fish proprietor, or "fasakhani" also sells other salted and smoked fish, including two other Egyptian preserved fish traditionally eaten on Sham El-Nessim: Renga, a smoked herring and melouha (the name melouha comes from malh ملح, the root word for salt).

Due to the delicate process of fermentation and the comparatively low level of food hygiene in Egypt, contaminated feseekh is always a problem, and every year there are a few deaths from bad batches of feseekh. This video discusses that issue (in Arabic, but the visuals often speak for themselves. My Arabic is terrible now and not that great ever, so I can't vouch for what's being said.). This article in China's People Daily (!?!) also discusses the dangers of feseekh not just in terms of food poisoning but also due to its extremely high levels of salt.

In recent years, al-Azhar Mosque declared a fatwa against eating feseekh, but with little effect.
posted by Deathalicious (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh. From the Bible, Numbers 11:
The children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.

posted by Joe in Australia at 9:40 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


How does one "discover" how to make something like this? Honest question.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:42 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've actually eaten feseekh (along with renga and melouha) when in Egypt and have written about it elsewhere. The topic came up because it's been hard to find in the States but this month I was able to buy a package of the stuff. It does stink to high heaven; I had to seal it in a second ziplock as you can smell it from a foot or so away from within a single ziplock bag.

It was just as weird/delicious as I remembered. If you can get past the initial smell and first few bites it magically becomes strangely addictive.

Its flavor and smell are unique and difficult to compare to anything else. It has an extremely strong umami flavor and its aroma is yeasty but also reminds me somewhat of a strong cheese like Parmeggiano Reggiano although with a fetid overtone.

My wife, who hates it, said the taste reminded her of bathroom cleaners. So, there's that too.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:42 PM on April 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Threeway Handshake: How does one "discover" how to make something like this? Honest question.

It's really not that surprising, honestly. Salt has been used for millennia as a preservative, and fish preserved via fermentation can be found in nearly all cultures. Pretty much all you have to do to discover it is cover fish in salt and let it sit around. Then it's just a question of fine-tuning the timing, temperature, and other conditions over time. It's not that different than the discovery of wine/beer/alcohol, cheese, or yogurt, and way more probably than the discovery of bread or, for that matter, cured olives.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:47 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I figure if I can manage pickled herring, this can't be much harder to eat. I wonder where I can get it around here.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:16 PM on April 17, 2012


Shout out to feseekh. It is no coincidence that it rhymes with fessa.

Like surstromming, and farts, and it has a nice bubbly seltzer quality to it.
posted by odasaku at 11:11 PM on April 17, 2012


Yea, like, Yogurt is obvious some how? It's a bacteria that we're told belongs in our ass. It is as if someone shit in the milk, and realized this preserved it somehow. Oh, so obvious and simple!
posted by Goofyy at 11:17 PM on April 17, 2012


I figure if I can manage pickled herring, this can't be much harder to eat. I wonder where I can get it around here.

Okay, yeah. That's like running to catch a bus and then saying, "that wasn't so hard" and then running a marathon.

Pickled herring is, for all intents and purposes, a normal pleasant tasting thing that can happily exist within the realm of normal tastes.

If you live in Philadelphia or near enough to make it worthwhile, you can buy it at Jerusalem Corner Store although it will only be available right now (and for all I know may be sold out). I bought the tiniest package available and it was still too much feseekh. It was around $16/lb but my small piece came out to just $7 which is totally worth it.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:17 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, this is a long way off, but I call for a feseekh-eating Philly meetup for next year's Sham el-Nessim.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:18 PM on April 17, 2012


Yea, like, Yogurt is obvious some how? It's a bacteria that we're told belongs in our ass. It is as if someone shit in the milk, and realized this preserved it somehow. Oh, so obvious and simple!

Since you asked so nicely..

Although the bacteria found in yogurt are supposedly beneficial to our gut flora (and I believe are similar but not identical strains/species), the bacteria in yogurt is thought to have possibly originated not from humans but from plants or possible the udders of the domestic milk-producing animals. Most yogurt is now soured using strains from existing yogurt, so there is always a supply of bacteria from the previous batch. This is also true for nearly all fermentation, including the starter/yeast for bread, the cultures and molds for cheeses, and the crystals they use to make kefir.

Also, anecdotally I once left a glass of milk out overnight and it turned into yogurt on its own (and no, I did not shit in it).
posted by Deathalicious at 11:29 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


My local contribution to the fermented fish Olympics: Gravlax

This one Irish dude who I ate it with one time did not believe me when I told him what it was: "Nobody eats rotten fish!" "Nonono, it's not rotten, it's fermented!". Did not help...

And then I tried to explain lutefisk to him. I suspect his conclusion was that I could not possible know what the word "lye" meant in English.
posted by Harald74 at 11:30 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


(BTW; yoghurt is quick and easy to make yourself at home, and impresses the hell out of people.)
posted by Harald74 at 11:32 PM on April 17, 2012


Harald74 -- as I understand it, the gravlax that you'll generally find today is not fermented, just salt-cured. I'd love to taste the real thing sometime though.

My one regret in Japan was not getting a chance to eat narezushi.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:47 PM on April 17, 2012


Gravlax is not really fermented any more though. Its just salted and cured.

I ate some Harkarl in Iceland. it wasn't that bad actually reminded me of a strong Stilton - I think its more interesting in a way as the original un-fermented fish is in fact poisonous and its only by the long fermentation and drying that it becomes safe to eat.

I think most of these "discoveries" were made when salting foods at times of Salt shortages. You have to remember that there was a time when Salt was a very very valuable and more scarce resource. Most of these techniques use similar methods to traditional salting / curing methods - but usually less salt is used so that some bacteria can survive.
posted by mary8nne at 11:49 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


It doesn't sound all that different from Asian fish sauce, or Roman garum. I'd like to try it, but all those things can be hard to find here at the gateway to the scablands.
posted by faceonmars at 11:55 PM on April 17, 2012


Also, anecdotally I once left a glass of milk out overnight and it turned into yogurt on its own (and no, I did not shit in it).

Milk ... Maybe gets left out by my kids regularly, and might have been known to get thick and yogurt-looking.

Hypothetically, if this were to have happened, would it be safe to eat?
posted by leahwrenn at 12:14 AM on April 18, 2012


I translated the video in the FPP. It's quite entertaining:
Feseekh is made from the Buri Fish (Grey Mullet). It is left to bake in the sun, then placed in a certain amount of salt. Of all the things that distinguish Feseekh, its pungent smell ranks highest.

In every celebration of Shamm El-Nessim, the proceedings involve the consumption of salted fish, especially Feseekh. And the reason behind this presentation today is to talk about that the danger (of the food), which could lead to blood poisoning or death.

The experts have said that the main concern is the way in which the Feseekh is prepared, particularly because there aren't any regulations concerning its preparation. Additionally, some vendors use dead fish that have been scavenged from the surface of the water, which are then exposed to the rays of the sun, which decomposes them and creates a terrible odor. The vendors simply add a bit of salt to them and present them to the masses 3 or 4 days later.

The first signs of food poisoning emerge 8 to 12 hours after the consumption of Feseekh. The symptoms consist of Blurred Vision, Stomach Pains, and Muscle Weakness, in addition to Shortness of Breath; all of which can possibly lead to death.

For this reason the experts suggest selecting the best kinds of salted fish. The fish should be fresh, free of any blemishes or wounds, have a natural color, with clear eyes, bright red gills, and be free of any blood particles in its gills. It is also advised that one procures salted fish from a source that is trusted.

It is preferred that the fish are placed (by the vendor) on a non-porous slab or wood that is well-cared for, with a good amount of ventilation, and a cool environment. The amount of salt in the salting process should also not fall below 12% percent. This should be for a duration that is no less than 15 days, and a whole month for the Buri Fish in particular. It is also preferred that the fish are frozen for 24 hours prior to consumption to kill any microscopic life it may contain and to preserve it prior to its sale the next day.

In its consumption, one discards its head and entrails, and adds a copious amount of vinegar, lemon, and leafy greens, to decrease the total amount of salt one will consume.

And May Every Year Find You in Good Health.

posted by lemuring at 1:00 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Leahwrenn: I am not a microbiologist, and especially not your microbiologist, but if the milk got thick overnight it's probably because an acid-producing bacterium (i.e., lactobacillus) made it curdle. You might as well call that yoghurt as anything else and I would be happy to eat it if my kids hadn't been sticking their grubby fingers in it. If it's been left out for a long time and isn't thick then I'd be scared that some yucky bacteria got into it before the lactobacilli could colonise it.

Home made yoghurt is yummy. I make mine deliberately by adding an itty bit of store-bought yoghurt to a bottle of milk, warming it up and leaving it overnight. In the morning I pour it into a colander lined with a dishcloth and drain out the whey. Depending on when you stop the process you either end up with thick (Greek-style) yoghurt or soft cheese. You can eat it with fruit, or add salt and make a soft cheesy spread. It is so good.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:21 AM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


How does one "discover" how to make something like this? Honest question.

Based on the available evidence, I believe alcohol must be involved.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:38 AM on April 18, 2012


Of all the things that distinguish Feseekh, its pungent smell ranks highest.

Well then that's not saying much for the rest of it. Feseekh isn't even ranked among the 18 STINKY FOODS FROM AROUND THE WORLD. I suppose it is the use of salt as a preservative which moderates the worst of the stink?

Surströmming which is basically rotten/fermented herring preserved with only a little brine (salt was an expensive luxury in Scandinavia) is an unbelievably foul smelling concoction not universally liked by Scandinavians and eaten only with copious amounts of alcohol by those who do have a taste for it. I suppose feseekh, with thought to its broad appeal amongst Egyptians, is much milder? Or Egyptians are all mad?

Outstanding post BTW Deathalicious. Thanks for putting this up.
posted by three blind mice at 2:20 AM on April 18, 2012


Not ranked in the illustrious 18 Stinky Food From Around the World, you say??
      /
┌─┐
┴─┴
ಠ_ರೃ


HEARTLESS FIENDS!
         /
     ┌─┐
     ┴─┴
ლ(ಠ益ರೃლ)
posted by lemuring at 3:10 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I figure if I can manage pickled herring, this can't be much harder to eat.

Comparing Pickled Herring to Surströmming is like comparing a kiss on the cheek and a repeated punch in the face. If Feseek is anything like it, it will be much harder to eat.

Surströmming is everything you hate about herring, combined with everything you hate about sewage. SAS (and other airlines) has a very strict policy about bringing it onboard, thanks to a can rupturing in flight to the US, resulting in, well, let's just say you didn't want to be there.

And of course, if you think that the idea of garum, the fermented fish sauce of the romans is foul, I'd avoid Worcestershire sauce.
posted by eriko at 3:33 AM on April 18, 2012


There's a BBC documentary somewhere in all this: Cultures of the World and the Horrible, Horrible Things They Do To Fish Before Eating It.

Episode 1: Iceland and Rotten Shark.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:09 AM on April 18, 2012


The list of 18 includes fish sauce, kimchi, and natto. I'm guessing this guy just doesn't know about feseekh.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:46 AM on April 18, 2012


Sometimes when I mention that I am (mildly) allergic to all seafood, people will wax rhapsodic about this sashimi or that piece of crab. And then I remember all the times I have been presented with tentacles or pungent purple little octopi, or studied the chemical process of garum production, or learned about rotting fish illegally pressed into service as a holiday treat and it makes it all better.

Except for the Iceland and the Rotten Shark link. That's just...that's just insane.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:57 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eponysterical
posted by Trurl at 5:32 AM on April 18, 2012


Ha. You should see what Eskimos ferment.
posted by spitbull at 5:39 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


From Mr. Bad Example's link: Hákarl is often referred to as an acquired taste and has a very particular ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste, similar to very strong cheese slathered in ammonia.

I must taste this delicious fermented ammonia cheese shark!
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:47 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the Scandinavian variants explain that dirty trick in the candy aisle called 'Swedish Salty Fish'!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:23 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


leahwrenn: "
Milk ... Maybe gets left out by my kids regularly, and might have been known to get thick and yogurt-looking.

Hypothetically, if this were to have happened, would it be safe to eat?
"

You know, without even thinking about it I ate the yogurt in that cup. It was just too incredible not to. Later, I thought "Oh my gosh did I just kill myself?!?" It didn't help that the "whey" (which I took a careless sip of after polishing off the "yogurt") did not have that familiar sour tang but instead tasted like instant death.

Clearly, I lived, but I wouldn't recommend it with pasteurized milk. Raw milk is going to sour naturally whereas when pasteurized milk goes bad, it's Bad. Sounds like it won't kill you though:
The bacteria are non-pathogenic, but they still destroy food and will eventually cause the milk to spoil.
While spoiled milk won’t kill you, the bacteria have broken down the milk enough that there isn’t much nutrition left in it. It also tastes terrible, and heating it won’t return the fresh flavor. Drinking spoiled milk or spoiled food of any kind is unwise unless you’re literally starving.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:50 AM on April 18, 2012


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