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Aug 16, 2001 01:26 PM

Should I have concerns about products imported from foreign countries?

  • c

This may be a foolish or naive question, but I'm wondering if I should have any health concerns about processed foods from countries such as Thailand or Mexico(things like bottled fish sauce, canned coconut milk, bottled curry paste or mole, etc.)

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  1. Several people have insisted that I shouldn't buy mexican vanilla because the processing adds trace amounts of lead. I have no idea if this is true, but I have been scared of it ever since.


    5 Replies
    1. re: ben fisher

      The trace product in Mexican vanilla is strychnine, I believe. I've been eating the stuff all my life (it's a common ingredient in Texas) and I've never had or heard about any ill effect. Of course, I wouldn't drink it straight, either. Fish sauce is essentially the juice of fermenting (rotting) fish. What else could go wrong?

      One of the best parts of cooking down here is the easy availability of foodstuffs from Mexico. I've never had a problem with any of them. Embrace these things, don't fear them.

      1. re: Greg Spence

        forgive my ignorance, but is the fish sauce which Ijust tried for the first time (froma vietnamese restaurant) similar to what MFK Fisher is talking about in the essay "G is for Garum"? I think it was a roman condiment made of decaying fish juice with cumin and various other spices?

        I enjoyed it, but my mind reels


        1. re: ben fisher

          yes and no garum is a sauce made from fermented fish as is nam pla. but garum is seasoned with what iam not sure.
          nam pla is fish preferable sardines placed in a barrel and left to ferment in the sun for some ungodly number of days, then a small bung on the barrel is opened and the clear viscus fluid that runs out is the extra virgin fish sauce.
          water is then flushed in the barrel and set to rest again this then later becomes the second sauce which is most commonly found in stores.
          the virgin fish sauce of course is the real deal and much more expensive.
          every culture has sauces made of fish, in america worschester sauce is made of fish, and as ive heard is fairly simular at least in its base before all the other ingredients as garum.
          an old professor of mine has studied taste sensations in humans and has said that we possesses sweet,salt,sour and bitter taste recepters but also unconscious receptors in the reptilian part of our brains which process the taste of fish. which accounts for why fish sauce increases flavors in food more then the simple addition of the salts contained.
          I have experimented with adding 1-2 drops of fish sauce to macerated berries and found that the fish sauced ones had no notisable fish flavor but the berry taste was much more robust.
          i repeated the test 2 more times with subjects (friends) uninformed as to the nature of the test, with the same results.
          if you havent tried playing around with fish sauces start easy. buy some oyster sauce, rub it on a steak and grill it. then taste a steak seasoned conventionaly to see what i mean.

          heres my standard steak recipe.
          take 3 ounces oyster sauce, add juice one lemon, 1/2 tsp rosemary, 1 tsp white pepper, 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1 tsp sugar, pinch of salt, 1/4 tsp dill.
          mix well.
          rub mixture all over your steak and letsit in fridge for 30 minutes.
          heat nonstick or cast iron pan until hot, add 2 tbl butter to pan and drop steak on imeadiatly, cook until you cant stand it then flip steak. both sides should be seared perfectly. press on steak with finger until
          it feels like the pad between your thumb and forefinger.
          remove steak, let sit 5 minutes and enjoy.
          warning: dont try this without a good exaust fan.
          of course you could bbq it but iam a firm believer in pan fried steaks.

          1. re: ben fisher

            They are very similar.I visited the village of Cetara, on the Amalfi coast in May,where garum is still made.It is made with anchovies,pressed and weighted for a few months,and I found it to be a little more refined than most Asian fish sauces that I've tasted.Some of the bottles had sprigs of oregano inside.It's also called colatura,and is not exported...I did sneak some home,and it is wonderful on pasta.

            1. re: M.K.

              According to my Barron's Food Lover's Companion, Garum was/is flavored with oil, wine, pepper and other spices. Along with the fermented fish, of course. Sounds Roman, doesn't it?

      2. A while back there was a brand of imported frozen coconut milk pulled off the market because some people who bought it at the supermarket and used it got cholera.

        1. I recently logged on to an FDA web site (sorry, I don't have the URL) and read about shipments of Dona Maria Mole being refused shipment into the USA because of rat feces and other filth in the blend. It appears that the processing of chilis is to blame. FWIW

          1. I felt obligated to find the URL after making such a strong statement about a popular product. Here it is.