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Mắm Tôm (Fermented Shrimp Paste)

Sometimes, the worse something smells, the better the taste.

By Vu PhanPublished 2 months ago 4 min read

In the morning, Mom took me to the market to get food for lunch and dinner. Back then, before time was hard and food was cheap, we bought groceries day by day, driven by cravings rather than survival. My small feet quickly grew tired. “You wanna starve? Pick up the pace!” Mom said, then grabbed my hand. There had never been any reasons to rush, but Mom insisted. The early shoppers get the freshest fish.

The market wasn’t particularly large, a street wide enough for two-cars, or ten persons standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with vendors and stalls on either side. Some didn’t have stalls, just a chair and buckets with fish in them. Those are the best ones, Mom said. There were stalls that sell tofu and fruits and vegetables and meats, and stalls that have deep-fried seafood-adjacent and meatballs with more flour than meat that tasted heavenly with hot sauce. I kept looking around, and Mom kept walking. She seldom let me buy anything, “unhealthy” she exclaimed, “we don’t have money” she cried, but once in a while she would let me stay at a stall where some uncles and grandpas played Xiangqi. I never got any good at Xiangqi, but I enjoyed playing with the pieces and pretending to understand how the game worked. An uncle would say if I managed to beat him, he’ll give me all of his money and his house. Not that day, but soon. Maybe when I’m older.

A siren went off somewhere, and Mom yanked my hand hard. She looked around, and put her left hand, the one holding plastic bag filled with fish and veggies, to her heart. There was nothing to see, except the usual market commotion. She took a deep breath. Mom was afraid of the police. They didn’t come in time when the fire erupted. When the red and blue strobe light finally arrived, relief was gone, the house was gone, anxiety remains. Or so said the talking doctor.

I didn’t know what anxiety was. Or remember that day very well.

By the time we got to the corner that sells mắm tôm, my feet was throbbing. The slippers were too small for me. She turned and almost disappeared into the large bodies of other moms. Her right hand still clutched mine. To admit, embarassingly, I like the smell of mắm tôm. Although it smells like walking past a graveyard for sea creatures, where the Earth failed to cover the cataclysmic odor underneath and green fumes spewed out like in the cartoons. I followed Mom to the epicentre, where the product was kept in small boxes stacked on top of one another as high as a standing man. If any of those was to spill, the ground would smell like shrimp for at least a week. No one cared, for we have either grown used to it, or grown to love it like myself. Mom would use a box to make a week’s worth of food, from braising it with beef belly, to making a soup to serve with vermicelli, or the pièce de résistance “bún đậu mắm tôm” where you dip the vermicelli and tofu and veggie and pig intestines straight into the viscous, purple liquid.

Mắm tôm tastes exactly how you would imagine something called fermented shrimp paste to taste like: extremely salty. That’s why we would pair the substance with ample amount of sugar. Take bún đậu mắm tôm for example, where a sauce is created by mixing mắm tôm with sugar and stirring vigorously, until the purple slightly loses its colour. My mom would also squeeze the juice of a kumquat or two into the sauce, and finished it with bird-eye chillies. The result is heaven: fish heaven, where all the good sea creatures eventually end up, in order to be served to the occupants of human heaven.

“Mom, where is big bro?” – I asked Mom at dinner. We were in our living room, with the TV turned on to the news channel, and the doors and windows were opened so the smell can escape.

“He’s gone very far away. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

“I wish he were here. He loved mắm tôm.”

“Me too.”

I thought about the favorites of my brother and I: braised pork belly on steamy rice, runny eggs and bread, mắm tôm. When I think of them, I want to save some for big bro when he’s home. Mom would yell at me, however, and tell me not to waste food.

Bún đậu mắm tôm is still my favourite dish, but I could make the dip on my own now. I also go to market alone, twice a week on Wednesday and Sunday. At dinner I would leave out two dishes, for Mom and big bro.

Short Storyfamily

About the Creator

Vu Phan

A Vietnamese writer. I retell Vietnamese Mythology for the global audience, or at least I am trying to. I also write down random thoughts I manage to catch during a run. I am a postmodernist, and my favourite author is Neil Gaiman.

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