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My Mother's Fish Paste

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

I was asked to write about my “comfort food” and thought, what even is comfort food? Assuming the subject of comfort food is universal, I decided on my comfort food and to write about how it is a connection between me and my origin. My comfort food is a fish paste made specifically by my mother. I am Karen, a small ethnic group from Burma (now called Myanmar). I was born in a refugee camp along the border of Thailand due to an ongoing civil war known as the Karen Conflict. Disaster struck when the Burmese military was ordered to cleanse the people inhabiting their precious land. Many innocent lives were lost, and without a solidified government system, the Karen people stood no chance against their enemies. Families were forced to flee from their land, homes were burned to the ground, corpses were flying across the air, the aroma of burning flesh traveled vastly.

The mass genocide was a sight to behold. While this is a historical event, the conflict is a mystery to most people and new generations because of the poor educational system. Plus - it was never taught in schools. I grew up hearing convincing tales of noble heroes fighting in the war, but later in life have come to realize these stories had drifted into legend. Most memories of my birthplace have faded, so I consider San Diego my hometown. Families fled from the chaos and had to walk thousands of miles. They needed enough food for everyone and needed to preserve it throughout the journey. One main protein of their diets was fish. Since the people had prior knowledge of preserving food, they figured fermentation would be most convenient, and so the fish was morphed into a stinky mushy paste.

The process of making the fish paste is easy: first, lay the fish on a surface for a couple of days until it dries in the sun. Then, when it is dried, you mash it and add salt, put it in a container, and leave it for a few weeks. Then, it becomes a fish paste. If you ever get the chance to visit a Karen household, I guarantee they have a jar of fish paste somewhere in their kitchen. It may seem like the paste was only necessary for survival, but it has been part of our traditional cuisine way before the Karen conflict. I have been eating this for as long as I can remember. I have tried different household versions of how they make it, but none of them quite live up to my mother’s version. Various fish pastes can be found in local Asian grocery stores, but my mother still orders hers fresh from the jungles where the refugee camps still stand. This dish is the most common and the easiest to make, but I never really considered this dish to have any significance until I was asked what my comfort food is and why. Every time that fish paste is included in my meal, it is a reminder of my people's history and my connection with them.

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