In Praise of Rotting Food
Now more than ever, we fetishize that word—fresh. Fresh market vegetables! Fresh fish! It’s imbued with moral goodness. But as Chef Chang explains, rot is where it’s at.
BY: DAVID CHANG I PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTOPHER TESTANI
April 2014 issue of GQ
I take a seat at one of the finest sushi counters in the world and marvel at the exquisite craft of the chef. He slices an ever-so-slightly concave peel of tuna, smears a dab of wasabi onto the fish, shapes a handful of warm sushi rice in his hand, lays the tuna on top, brushes it with an aged soy sauce, and places the piece of nigiri in front of me. I chew a sliver of pickled ginger to refresh my palate and happily accept the perfectly constructed bite. The chef watches for my reaction before deciding that what I should have next is a cylinder of toasted nori, filled with cured ikura.
No dining experience is more associated with the concept of freshness than sushi: If the notoriously squeamish American diner is to consider eating raw fish, that fish had better be fresh. But the truth is, sushi’s not great because it’s fresh. It’s great because it’s actually sort of rotten.
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That rice the chef presented to me was stored for a year or two before being cooked with sugar and rice-wine vinegar. The pickled ginger was probably made three months ago. The artisanal soy sauce could be four years old. The ikura has been cured in wet brine and stored for who knows how long. The nori hasn’t seen the ocean in ages. And the star of the show? Truthfully, unless you’re Tom Hanks in Cast Away or the kids from The Blue Lagoon, you don’t want to eat fresh fish. Once a fish has been dead for more than a few minutes, the flesh goes into rigor mortis, and it can take four or five days to relax and reach its apex of deliciousness.
We reflexively recoil from the word “rot” when it comes to food, and we shouldn’t. We pay a premium for dry-aged beef because we know the older the steak, the more tender it is and the more umami it develops. That beef is rotting (okay, “aging”), but under our terms and to our benefit. Many foods are rotted to make them edible at all: olives, chocolate, coffee. And there are those that we rot to improve: pickles, cheese, wine. I find it hilarious that even the freshest foods are seasoned with rot. We dress salads with vinegar, a.k.a. rotten wine. I can’t even come up with a list of foods that I enjoy fresh more than aged—it basically stops after orange juice.
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Wait, I just thought of one more: peas. With spring here, I would be a fool not to put green peas on the menus at my restaurants. Peas are one of the rare foods where fresh truly is much better. But fresh peas begin to degrade in quality immediately and are in short supply even at the height of their season. So I tend to supplement fresh peas with frozen ones. I’d wager that the next time you eat a vibrant sweet-pea soup, it was made with a little fresh peas and a lot of frozen.
Still, I’m looking forward to all those fresh spring vegetables: I’m anxious to start preserving them in all kinds of ways, making them unfresh and a whole lot tastier. Technology and modernity have done away with the necessity of preservation, but those techniques—pickling, curing, drying, fermenting—remain the root of almost everything that’s good to eat. So let’s stop fixating on “fresh” and embrace things that are old and rotting. Even if it takes some time to get used to the idea.