You know that saying, when it comes to food, that fresh is best? It’s really true…or at least it certainly was in the case of several fresh-food stories I’d like to share — one about peanut butter, of all things, and the others about fish. Pay particular attention to the last one:
• Fresh peanut butter: That’s right, it’s actually possible to find fresh peanut butter in some places — not just Jif™ in a jar (which I also like) — such as in Southeast Asia, where peanut sauce is an important addition to any number of delicious dishes: For example, satay ayam [barbecued chicken skewers] with peanut sauce, just to name one of my most favorites.
During the year I lived in Bandung, Indonesia, there was this one store I frequented just for their freshly made peanut butter: There was a person there, sitting on the floor, hand-grinding peanuts with a mortar and pestle into the 100% fresh stuff. As he finished one dish full, he would add it to a metal can. I would order it, usually a half-kilo (about one pound) at a time, which he would scoop out of the can and glop onto a piece of wax paper. The clerk would then wrap this into another piece of paper.
I’ve forgotten the price — it wasn’t much; but despite the inelegance of its serving, I’ll never forget how delicious it was. It’s freshness gave it an extra nutty flavor. Now, I’ve liked peanut butter since I was a little kid: PBJs [peanut-butter-jam sandwiches], peanut butter cookies, peanut butter “suckers” (licking dabs of peanut butter off a spoon), mixed with honey, and especially on warm toast so that it melts a little and mixes with whatever else is on there. In fact, when I was really small I remember putting the PB on the bread before putting it in the toaster to get this effect (what a mess!)…until my mom told me the right way to do it. There was also a good bakery near our place in Bandung, so we could have warm bread with Australian butter and jam to go along with the fresh-made peanut butter. It was to die.
• Fresh uhu: One day when I was still teaching at Church College of Hawaii (before it became BYU-Hawaii in 1974), I took a scuba diving trip to the old Magoon Estate, just north of the Kona Airport, that was run at that time by two Air Force veterans who had done several tours flying Phantom Jets in Viet Nam, and wanted to kick back in Hawaii. It took about 45 minutes to drive the one mile across the lava field to get to a large house on a pristine white beach. Just before finishing one dive trip, one of the AF guys went down with a spear gun and brought back a couple of very nice uhu (parrot fish), which he proceeded to barbecue as soon as we got back to shore a few minutes later. It was so ono loa (very yummy).
• Fresh halibut: A few years ago my wife, Sally Ann McShane, and I took the Alaska”poor man’s cruise” (on the state ferry) up the Inland Passage to Juneau, where we stayed for a few days…and discovered a restaurant right by the luxury cruise ship dock that served this “killer” fish and chips dish made from fresh-caught halibut and a savory creamy sauce. It was sooooo good, that I would go back to Juneau just to eat it again. (A fish and chips dish at the old Grand Hotel in Suva, Fiji, made from fresh-caught walu (which I think is ono in Hawaiian, but I’m not sure, runs a close second.)
• The “freshest fish of all”: And no, I don’t mean raw fish. I cautiously admit that I’ve never really cared for Hawaiian poke (raw fish) although I do enjoy lomilomi salmon (small pieces of raw salmon usually served ice-cold with tomatos and onions) and Tahitian-style poisson cru — you know, where the raw fish is marinated in lime juice, coconut cream and a few other add-ins, which makes my mouth water just to write about it.
No, this particular fish dish was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I had at a Chinese restaurant (I’ve forgotten the name) back in Bandung, Indonesia. Now, if you’re only familiar with American-style Chinese restaurants and food, you might not realize that almost every dinner in China includes at least one fish course; and not just when eating out: The two consistently longest food lines I noticed in the Shanghai supermarket I used to go to a couple of years ago were fresh eggs (which the people purchased individually and put in a plastic bag, not in a carton), and live fish in a water tank, where customers pointed out the ones they wanted.
So, one of the U.S. Information Service (called USIA in the states) administrators from the embassy in Jakarta made the trip to Bandung (about 120 hard miles away), where he had come years before to study the language…and became acquainted with this particular dish. Because I was there as a Fulbright Lecturer attached to the Embassy, he invited me along with his party to a restaurant near the great mosque in the center of town. The place was jammed and food was excellent, but the main fish course — I don’t know what kind of fish — was totally unforgettable.
Why? Because the fish was served on something like a chafing dish or a hot platter — you could see glowing charcoal inside it — with four pegs that held the fish upright (i.e. not lying flat, like most fish is served).
Here comes the amazing part: The fish was positioned so that the heat from the glowing coals was cooking the filets…but the poor fish was still alive! You could tell, because as the waitress carefully sliced off the cooked meat, the fish’s tail would wiggle a little! That’s as fresh as cooked fish gets.
The only other thing I’ve seen that comes even close to this, at least visually, is the Japanese dish okonomiyaki. Usually described as kind of a pancake (but I think of as sort of a soufle), the okonomiyaki I would sometimes eat at a restaurant in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikiki when I worked there in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s sales and marketing office, would be topped with very thin shavings of fish — I mean like onion skin: The heat rising from the dish caused the shavings to wiggle around, which was definitely something different than most Americans are used to. This went on for quite a while, or until someone ate all the toppings.
I don’t know about you folks, but when I’m hungry for a snack, I’m much more likely to reach for the peanut butter than anything still alive, or wiggling.