Vietnamese food is nothing without the imprint of fish sauce (nuoc mam). The best Vietnamese fish sauce is delicately flavored and full of umami goodness. Believe it or not, good fish sauce can be enjoyed straight. Seriously.
About Vietnameses fish sauce
You can make fish sauce from various kind of aquatic animals (shrimp, mackerel, or squid, for example). However, the best Vietnamese fish sauce comes from the island of Phu Quoc, where the waters are full of a particular kind of anchovy called ca com. I was there in 2007 and visited a number of the fish sauce factories.
At first, I didn’t think that Phu Quoc fish sauce could be great. But I was wrong. I visited the source, spoke to the artisanal producers, and then tasted it. Yowza, it was good.
It’s hard to get nuoc mam from Phu Quoc abroad, though the Viet Huong (3 Crabs) brand combines Phu Quoc fish sauce with Thai fish sauce. Viet Huong has a whole line of fish sauce that you should check out.
But for 100% Phu Quoc fish sauce, you have to look outside of the United States. Find Knorr brand of fish sauce in Canada and Asia. Or, try to smuggle fish sauce into the States like Bobby Chinn did.
Chinese-Vietnamese food writer Julie Wan went in search of the true Phu Quoc fish sauce for herself. She interviewed producers in Vietnam and last week, we chatted about the availability of the real deal outside of the motherland. Julie’s findings came out today in a Washington Post article. Her piece offers rich details on how fish sauce is made in Phu Quoc:
The best of Vietnamese fish sauce comes from Phu Quoc
Old fishermen once downed a cupful to keep warm when venturing out to sea. Divers drank it before plunging into deep, cold waters. Many believe the best kind comes from only one island, where it is aged in decades-old barrels of a particular type of wood.
Who knew fermented fish could be so romantic?
Like wine in France and olive oil in Italy, fish sauce is the prized staple of Vietnam, where it is used in soups and marinades or diluted into a sauce that accompanies foods from spring rolls to noodles. The Vietnamese have seals on their bottles to indicate quality, the highest being nuoc mam nhi, the first extraction of liquid from fish fermented in salt: extra-virgin fish sauce, if you will.
And the best of the best, as widely agreed among Vietnamese enclaves around the world, comes from Phu Quoc, a tropical island off the nation’s southwest coast. In fact, the Phu Quoc name is so coveted and abused in the fish sauce industry that local producers have been working with the World Trade Organization to protect its appellation of origin.
Making the sauce requires three parts fish to one part salt, a ratio common to most producers in Southeast Asia. Anchovies or other tiny fish usually are used; larger, more expensive fish such as mackerel or sardines can be substituted but result in a costlier, less profitable product.
After about a week, liquid begins seeping from the fish and is drained and circulated back into the vat every day for an entire year — long enough for it to reach concentration, but not long enough for hydrosulfuric acid to appear, which would spoil the taste.
This first extraction is the highest quality, reserved for direct consumption in dips and sauces. Subsequent extractions are produced by running sea water through the vat, which results in a weaker, lower-grade product normally used for cooking.
At the factory in Phu Quoc, the workers lined up the bottles of fish sauce by gradients of color, like tea steeped to varying degrees. The darkest-colored bottle was labeled “43°N/1L” and came from the first extraction of liquid. The others bore decreasingly lower numbers — 40, 30, 20 and 15°N/L — and came from subsequent extractions, after water had been added.
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