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Food from the Morgues

When I ate that piece of fish, it took me to the very spot where dead bodies and chemicals resided. And I was certain that the fish that I’d just eaten had formalin in it.

Sunday is chaotic in my kitchen when fresh ingredients and new groceries are weekly stocked. It’s also a perfect time to cook an elaborate meal and put the boys’ favorite dishes on the table. We usually cook seafood on Sunday because we visit a local fish market in the morning. I believe it’s a peak fishing season right now as the fish stands are flourished with proper sizes of seafood. Our regular purchases are Surmai or King Mackerel, prawns, Indian mackerels, and sometimes, we are lucky enough to get squids and clams. I love a big King Mackerel which I often fry with a coat of Kerala-style spices. It’s a side dish for our homey Malabar Meal, which usually consists of boiled rice, winter melon and coconut stew and some cooked seasonal vegetables. The prawns are good for tempuras which I serve with rice and soy sauce, and the mackerels are great for Thai Fried Fish in Coconut Cream Sauce.

Two weeks ago, a usual scene was playing in my home. We got the gorgeous slices of King Mackerel and few other small fishes. I marinated the fish slices with some spices, ready for a pan of smoky oil, and then I washed and cleaned the rest of the seafood to freeze for later. To me, cooking is almost like writing a chapter in a novel. It begins with many elements and slowly develops into something interesting. The aroma of turmeric and chili, the heat, and the fumes of flavors furled from the stoves. It’s all good except when I fried the fish, a hint of the pungent scent swiftly kicked the tip of my nose. I shrugged it off as the fishy smell which sometimes we have to endure when the fishes aren’t that fresh. I slightly pressed the fish with the tip of a fork, a technique I use to check if it was cooked properly, and the steams and juice exploded from the flesh. The spices were perfectly brown and crisped. It looked stunning. The fork sank into the white meat, and I took the first bite to taste. And here was where I froze because the bite transported me back to a place I least expected. A morgue. Have you ever watched those Japanese Cartoons, which the cute characters exaggeratedly seemed to see colorful rainbows, bright lights or gorgeous meadows of flowers when they ate something delicious? Well, this was a horror version of that. You see, I used to volunteer in a hospital where I worked at a cancer ward and sometimes had a responsibility in a morgue. I know exactly what formaldehyde smells like. It’s not something you can forget, and it’s not something you want to put in your mouth. When I ate that piece of fish, it took me to the very spot where dead bodies and chemicals resided. And I was certain that the fish that I’d just eaten had formalin in it.

Although I couldn’t prove that there was really the deadly chemical in the fish, my heart sank. I might have made a mistake, but I wasn’t about to ignore a hunch. I didn’t serve the fish to my family and I told them why. I also got rid of the stash in the freezer because we certainly didn’t want to take a risk. We were disappointed, but moreover, we were mortified as we couldn’t trust in our food anymore.

Formalin, a solution of Formaldehyde in water, is a common chemical used in morgues to preserve corpses. Formalin is toxic and dangerous to human health. I first learned about Formalin on a Children’s Day, when most medical schools in Thailand opened their anatomy classes to the public. It’s a day the children can meet Ahjan Yai (the principals) or the cadavers and learned about the human body. We were introduced to Formalin, the chemical used to embalm the corpses and its strong scent that would stick to our clothes and hairs for days. Later, in my teenage years, I had a closer lesson about this chemical while volunteering in the hospital. I recognize the scent of it quite preciously. It’s pungent and nauseating, and it’s something that I wouldn’t want to find in my kitchen.

After, the incident on that Sunday, I started looking online about whether or not there had been any incidents in India. I didn’t want to make a strong conclusion that my favorite fish market had a serious contamination because honestly, it’s just what I felt and I didn’t legitimately test the fish with a proper kit. But as per my research, there have been many reports in India over the years, and it’s frightening to learn how common it is for our food to be polluted by this deadly chemical.

Anyway, this may sound tragic, but we decided to stop buying fish from the markets here. Our confidence in food safety was lost. It’s tough because my family really loves seafood, but we couldn’t ignore the risk. We might have to travel to the coastal areas to buy some fish right from the boats, and an effort would be worth it when we can trust our food again.

Beautiful produce can not only inspire us to cook good food, but they guarantee that the dishes will turn out healthy, delicious and nourishing. Throughout my life, I’ve seen a gradual change in the quality of our food. It saddens me that my kid cannot drink water from the wells like I used to do, that the majority of the mangoes in the markets have been ripened in the chambers of Calcium Carbine, and that we couldn’t trust to have a Formalin-free fish in our pan. When you love cooking, the quality of ingredients is a passionate topic. And my heart is broken to see how we mess this up. Our food is contaminated by pesticides, chemicals, and greed, and it’s our responsibility to make a conscious choice from now on.


4 comments to Food from the Morgues

  • 1. What are thos perfectly round rings on those two cooked fillets?

    2. I had a similar experience with fish I purchased at one of the high-end stores in my neighborhood, but it was that the fish I had just bought and was cooking gave a sharp odor of ammonia. I was told later – – after the store claimed how strange this sounded and they had now clue – – that this is due to fish being “dipped” in some solution to make it seem fresh in the store. Needless to say, I also (sadly) gave up fish and seafood for a time. I grew up on a lake eating fish several times a week and knew something was up, so I studied up a bit and got even more fierce in my pursuit of my fish & seafood. I have sadly learned that even the most high-end store will take questionable steps to sell old fish to loyal customers, relying on the fact that many people are uncertain about and even a bit afraid of fish and cooking it and will likely blame themselves, toss it out and not say anything to the store. How sad.

    • Tes

      Hi 🙂 Those two rings are the fish vertebrae. Yes, it’s pretty sad and scary that we can’t even feel safe buying food. I grew up close to a river back in Thailand, and now my sister told me the river is so polluted that nothing can live in it.

  • Ping

    Right on! I experienced the first detect of chemicals in the meat here in Yangon after the water festivals. I mean, I had to spit it out! I was in denial though about the local meat having such as these deadly chemicals. But even the recent years Thailand has sprayed formalin on the green herbs in the local market. I tried to stick to organic as much as possible but then again, it’s loosing trust as well. Thanks for the post!

    • Tes

      Hi Ping, It has been really difficult to find the trustable ingredients in the markets now a day. The other days when I looked at the Frozen food section in the Super market hoping to find a good package of frozen fish thinking they can be trusted, but in the label itself it shows that the fish has been coated with unnamed coating. It’s so disappointing.

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