It’s extremely salty and the odor it produces when it’s cooking is really strong. The first time you smell it, you could end up running in the other direction.
Many non-Filipinos can’t stand the smell or the taste. While I can now stand the smell, I still can’t eat it.
Prior to getting married to my wife (Josie), I had never tasted or smelled dried fish. One day when we were living in our first apartment (in Yuma), she started cooking some. I don’t remember where she got it from but I think one of the other Filipino women (“Filipinas”) living in our apartment complex had brought some back from San Diego, California.
Our apartment was on the second floor and the front door and picture window were next to an outdoor hallway that looked more like a sidewalk – kind of what a Motel 6 looks like. The smell of the dried fish while cooking was horrible, at least in my opinion.
Our next-door apartment neighbors didn’t think it was even tolerable. The wife came out of her apartment, said something like “What’s that awful smell?”, ran back into her apartment and closed her window (that was just like ours).
Before moving to the Philippines, I avoided dried fish as much as possible. I had tasted it at least once and it was way too salty. I couldn’t taste the fish. Then I moved to the Philippines and I could no longer avoid it.
While living in the Philippines, I’ve smelled dried fish regularly (while cooking and after it’s cooked) and I’ve watched relatives munching down on it as ulam (the main dish) with their rice. I can eat a piece of it now without wanting to spit it out immediately, but I still can’t eat an entire fish. The smell doesn’t bother me anymore.
I don’t know exactly what species of fish they are (and there are multiple species used). A dried fish is a corned, sun-dried fish popular with Filipinos because it won’t spoil for weeks, even without refrigeration. The fish are very small, the size of goldfish and they’re usually eaten whole.
They’re extremely salty and most Filipinos like salty foods. I only like salt on fries, popcorn and as a seasoning on certain foods. I like the taste of fish (if it doesn’t taste too “fishy”), not the taste of salt. Canned tuna tastes better to me than dried fish.
(The smell of it while it’s being dried or while it’s being cooked, reminds me of the smell of stinky feet. Back when I used to have really bad foot odor, Josie teased me that my feet smelled like dried fish. I really can’t tell you which smell is worse.)
Originally published in August of 2013. Updated for readability and minor corrections.