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What is in my peanut sauce?
December 29, 2009 6:44 AM   Subscribe

Weird question about Thai food.

I love Thai food. LOVE it. I especially like what the place near me calls Basil rolls, but what I've variously heard called summer rolls or Thai rolls--the transparent rice paper and vermicelli rolls that just change my life.

There's just one problem. The place nearest me makes a peanut dipping sauce that has a flavor note I can only describe as "vomitty." I have never tasted it in food before. The taste has been there every time I've eaten the sauce

Their health rating is fine so it isn't a problem with the ingredients. I think it is just something like the type of fish sauce they use? Maybe? No idea.

I am curious as to whether anyone has a similar experience at all, and whether the offending concoction is something anyone can identify.

Again, it doesn't make me vomit. And it doesn't taste exactly like vomit. But there's a certain indescribable vomitty quality I would like help addressing. Thanks!
posted by jefficator to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you intimately familiar with the sort of fermented fish flavors found in nam pla and belachan? These are probably the most "unusual" flavors commonly used in Thai food.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:51 AM on December 29, 2009


I'm no expert in making Thai food, but the culprit could be butyric acid (or something like it). It shows up in both parmesan cheese and vomit—maybe it makes an appearance in your sauce.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 6:56 AM on December 29, 2009


I made my own dipping sauce once, using fish sauce as specified. No thank you. Just not a taste I grew up with and I can't get past it. If you want to experiment, buy a jar of fish sauce and taste it (it's not expensive).

However, I have no problem with the restaurant versions, so I probably used too much.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:10 AM on December 29, 2009


you'd have to find out what exactly they put in their peanut sauce. It could be a combination of the fish sauce and coconut milk? Could they be using shrimp paste in it as well? That stuff will burn nostril hairs off its so offensive.
posted by Max Power at 7:18 AM on December 29, 2009


It could indeed be the type of fish sauce they use. Here's the best article on fish sauce I've ever read, by a Thai woman who came to the US, started to teach cooking classes at one point, and ended up writing a few Thai cookbooks. She really goes into detail, her whole site is a treasure trove. Anyway, relevant quote from the linked fish sauce article:
How can you tell which brands are good? Check the labels, though the certification of quality awarded by Thailand’s Commerce Department is not always translated into English. Ingredient lists and nutritional analyses cannot always be relied upon either. Short of being able to decipher or trust the labels, look for fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown color, like the color of good whiskey, without any sediments. If the color is a dark or muddy brown, the sauce is likely to be either a lower grade, or one that is not properly or naturally fermented; it may also have been sitting on the shelf a bit too long. After a bottle of fish sauce has been opened, it may darken in color as it is exposed to air without losing much flavor for some time, but when salt crystals or grit begin to form at the bottom of your bottle of fish sauce, it is surely time to throw it out and buy a new one.

Good fish sauce has a pleasant aroma of the sea, not an overwhelming smelly fishiness, and it should not be overly salty.
I've tried many different fish sauces and they really do cover a wide range, including "vomity". They're usually the cheapest ones (in general, fish sauce isn't that expensive), with very little actual fish sauce in them. Truly good fish sauce tastes like she describes, and adds a depth that regular sea salt just can't match. Nothing at all like vomit. (I've experimented on Thai curries at home over the years, just to see.)
posted by fraula at 7:24 AM on December 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Sorry for the double comment... it only occurred to me after posting the first one to look for a peanut sauce recipe on her site (one I've made, it was a while ago but I remember it was fine): Spicy Peanut Sauce Recipe. There is shrimp paste (shrimp paste article) in it, which, as Max Power says, is indeed another ingredient that can go wrong.
posted by fraula at 7:29 AM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm going to break with everyone here and say it's not fish sauce, but has to do with vinegar. I can make a mean peanut sauce, but if I go overboard on the rice vinegar it definitely gets vomity. Try mixing hot sauce + salt + peanut butter, then start tasting as you add more and more vinegar.

Or don't, if you aren't into the whole vomit thing.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:53 AM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm going to break with everyone here and say it's not fish sauce, but has to do with vinegar. I can make a mean peanut sauce, but if I go overboard on the rice vinegar it definitely gets vomity. Try mixing hot sauce + salt + peanut butter, then start tasting as you add more and more vinegar.

Maybe the bad flavor has to do with the combination, but rice vinegar by itself is really mild.
posted by kylej at 8:02 AM on December 29, 2009


The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word "vomitty" is asafoetida, but I'm not sure whether or not it is used in Thai cooking.
posted by hwestiii at 8:10 AM on December 29, 2009


Regarding the vinegar theory, well, vinegar is not used in Thai peanut sauces I know of... a second recipe (about.com), and a third recipe from a site where you can also find others. I haven't seen vinegar listed as an ingredient yet; I can conceive of it being used in place of tamarind sauce, but tamarind sauce is closer to lemon juice than to vinegar.
posted by fraula at 8:27 AM on December 29, 2009


Regarding the vinegar theory, well, vinegar is not used in Thai peanut sauces I know of

This is true! I went through my notebooks and I guess I've been getting my Thai peanut sauce conflated with some vinegary Chinese peanut sauce. And yeah, I doubt tamarind would do it.

I did some experimenting in the kitchen this morning and the only thing that could get a peanut sauce to taste vomity to me was adding a combination of something slightly spicy and something vinegary. The worst offender was garlic-chili sauce. Granted it did have fish sauce in it, but fish sauce by itself just made things salty, nothing barfable.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:50 AM on December 29, 2009


soma lkzx, you have made my day. Experimenting because of my question. Wow!
posted by jefficator at 8:57 AM on December 29, 2009


Papaya?
posted by cmoj at 10:16 AM on December 29, 2009


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