dried fish

The Dried Fish Issue

Filipinas nearly universally love dried fish. Their foreign husbands universally hate it. The smell of cooking dried fish is worse than that rodent that died under the hood of my car decades ago, and since in those days I never popped the hood until the oil light came on, I didn’t discover it until the stench was so great I nearly passed out driving.

The smell of cooking dried fish is worse than that rodent that died under the hood of my car decades ago…

I asked Janet why dried fish smells the way it does. “They dry it in the hot sun.” And probably don’t bring it in from the hot sun until it’s turned to leather, I thought. OK, so now I understand why it stinks though not why Filipinos dry it that way.

Even more interesting to me is Filipinas husbands’ hatred of the dried stuff. Every culture has stinky and disgusting foods. Certainly the origins of haggis are far more nauseating than dried fish. Kimchee brings me near to barfing. Among many stinky cheeses, the king is Limburger, a cheese which only Curly of the Three Stooges could love. From my own culture, there’s gefilte fish, which I love though it’s basically made from the cheapest, nastiest fish that can be obtained.

Let’s not even talk about liver, a stomach churner when cooking if ever there was one. Yet my mother made chopped chicken liver on holidays and I could consume any given quantity spread on crackers, as if it were candy.


In fact, dried fish is not even the worst smelling food in the Philippines. First there’s durian, the only food illegal to transport in some Southeast Asian countries due to it’s odor; a fresh fruit, not fermented or dried, durian’s stench is such that it can hit me in a large market hundreds of feet away and knock me flat. I’ve tried it and all I can say is that it does taste better than it smells, but so probably did that dead rodent in my engine compartment.


Then there’s balut, considered a delicacy in the Philippines. A duck embryo, it’s boiled alive and eaten in the shell. Yum. I don’t know how it smells since I’ve never gotten close enough to find out – and I’m keeping it that way.

So really, dried fish has a long way to go in the disgusting department. Yet the guys always are repulsed. I know many who won’t let their wives cook it even if they aren’t around. Two of my friends decided they would be men about it; meaning problem solvers. Like me, they’re engineers (of sorts) so I’d expect nothing less. They bought their wives electric frying pans, so the wives could cook their dried fish outside. They figured if the women want the dried fish badly enough, cooking out on the porch in zero degree winter weather is a small price to pay. I questioned the knight-like qualities of one of the princely husbands, who said, “I told her when we married that there would be no dried fish cooked in the house. Hey, I bought the electric frying pan, didn’t I?” Good point; perhaps I’m being too hard on my friends.

Janet understands our Westerner view of dried fish and tries to accommodate me. She opens the windows and doors and turns on the kitchen fan when she cooks her fave dried fish, to no avail. My teenage kids complain. “Go play in the backyard if it bothers you,” I tell them, knowing that as modern teenagers they haven’t played in the backyard since the Bush administration.

As a fish lover, I’ve tasted dried fish and it’s not as terrible as it smells. So really, I don’t mind too much when Janet wants to cook it. I’m only appalled when Filipinas eat it for breakfast. How, I wonder, can you possibly start the day with such a stink. On the other hand, Filipinas consume pork for breakfast, hot dogs, and spam, so dried fish isn’t too far of a reach.

I had figured my friends as unusually tough on their wives until we returned to Alcoy this spring. I rented a small apartment from a German man. He’d built two apartments behind his very nice home. And at 500 pesos/night ($12) the price was certainly right. But upon entering the apartment’s kitchen, the sign said it all…”Sorry, we cannot allow cooking Dried fish!”

No dried fish
No dried fish

Apparently, I’m a bit of a pansy when it comes to the dried fish issue.

7 thoughts on “The Dried Fish Issue”

  1. I think I might be one of the princely friends with the electric fry pan. I love my wife, but the smell of dried fish brings tears to my eyes. I want to have whatever her heart desires, but at the end of the day I need to keep my food down, and I’d like to be able to sleep inside the house. Dried fish (or the even worse dried squid) smell lingers in the house for days. I’ve smelled worse, of course, but I’ve never brought worse into the house and cooked it in oil, causing it to linger in the oil spatters in the nooks and crannies of the stove top. I’m happy we reached a compromise that allows her to have her fish and allows me to enjoy the smells of other food cooked and consumed in the house over the following days. Marriage is about compromise, and reaching one is this case makes both of us satisfied.

    1. Grant – I will take the 5th on whether you were one of the “princes” referred to. I will say the issue has come up often and when I went halfway around the world to Alcoy and saw the sign in the kitchen, I realized there was something universal and it just cracked me up – yet at the same time is a real issue between couples of different cultures. And yes, you are totally correct – finding a compromise is the only way to make a marriage work. Glad you found the best compromise for you two!

  2. I cooked dried fish mostly for my lunch when I was alone but the smells remained all over the house.
    Then, the men of the house arrived, welcomed by the very pleasant perfume as they entered the door. And I was just too nice offering them to spray the whole bottle of air freshener.

  3. Wow. I LOVE dried fish. I love balot. Duran is $16 a kilo and has been frozen when I buy it in Spokane, it is only 1/3 as good as fresh and i still buy it. To eat dried fish properly you do not eat it like fish, but just bits of it to flavor rice… To eat balot you need really good vinegar, flood the egg with spiced vinegar and it is hard to beat with beer.

    My wife cooks dried fish on the BBQ here and the stinky house is avoided… but still i have come home sometimes when she insists on fried.

    It is also against the rules to take jackfruit and marang to the airport. You should never eat durian and then drink beer as the little burps that you never noticed before, will now clear the room.

    For those who are planning a trip top the Philippines it is poor advise to dissuade them from trying these local treats. Further, my favorite time is evenings on the street where vender’s market local foods. Very low cost BBQ (heads, guts, feet) take on a new meaning as to value when snacked on while drinking a beer next to a now not-so-busy street.

    Street food is a very good way to invite local boys to have a non-threatening conversation, an ice breaker if you will. Share your beer, buy a plateful of BBQ (best with puso) or 5-10 eggs and ask about how their day was! Never mind that the egg seller must wait until you are done with using his vinegar, he expects that and feels as though he is a part of the fun simply waiting.

    It is easy to find bad in the Philippines but to ignore street life (food included) is to ignore what is really very superior to 90% of the developed world.

  4. Glad you like the dried fish, balut and durian. All cultures have foods that smell offensive to some. But that certainly doesn’t mean they should not be tried. I too like the taste of dried fish, not so much durian. I think I am gonna wait on the balut though lol.

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