The soul of a nation’s meals: Vietnamese fish sauce

(CNN) — Fish sauce – nước mắm, or actually ‘salted fish water’ – is a Vietnamese culinary icon, an indispensable nationwide ingredient up there with olive oil or soy sauce.

Nevertheless it’s honest to say that the manufacturing course of is not essentially the most aromatic, due to the pungent funk emanating from anchovies fermenting in huge picket vats for a yr.

Nevertheless, it would not cease hundreds of tourists a yr heading to the fish sauce producer Phung Held on Phú Quốc island, a 45-minute flight southwest of Ho Chi Minh Metropolis.

They’ve been in enterprise since 1950 and are pleased with their popularity as one of many main producers on an island which many Vietnamese really feel is accountable for the best fish sauce within the nation.

On the hunt for umami

The resort and its major restaurant Tempus Fugit have been designed by celebrated American architect Invoice Bensley.

The in depth repertoire of superbly executed Vietnamese dishes they serve, resembling seafood and pomelo salad or lobster with wok-fried greens, is essentially underpinned by the distinctive taste profile and distinguished umami — the “fifth style,” or distinctive savoriness — as supplied by Phú Quốc fish sauce.

However you needn’t look far for a style of Vietnamese fish sauce. It is current in pho, spring rolls, com tam, banh xeo, com thit nuong and dozens of different ubiquitous dishes.

A Phung Hung employee guides visitors through the factory.

A Phung Hung worker guides guests by the manufacturing facility.

Chris Dwyer

How the magic occurs

The essential substances in fish sauce are cá cơm (black anchovies) and smaller white anchovies. Collectively, they comprise about 95% of the fish used. Bigger fish like sardines and herring make up the remaining.

Historically, fish can be caught within the Andaman Sea round Phú Quốc, however right this moment they have an inclination to come back from Tho Cho Island, round 70 miles away. They’re solely caught between April and September, corresponding broadly with wet season.

Phung Hung have their very own fishing boats, which permits them to supervise the entire manufacturing course of. When the fish are caught, they’re instantly drained whereas nonetheless on the boat, then salted and saved, which means that the fermentation course of has already begun, utilizing the freshest attainable catch.

They use salt that comes from the southern coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and add it in a ratio of 1 half to 4 elements fish.

When the fishing boats land, Phung Hung workers gather the 200 kilogram (440 pound) containers of fish and blend them collectively in their very own barrels.


Fish sauce barrels was hand-crafted from wooden of boi loi, a tree from Phú Quốc Nationwide Park, however it’s now so endangered that wooden needs to be imported from Cambodia. Some have likened the significance of the wooden to wine ageing in oak barrels, imparting its personal distinctive taste profiles.

The hefty barrels are constituted of 54 slats of wooden, sure collectively by hand with a rattan twine. It takes two males three weeks to make one.

As soon as the barrel is crammed, staff clamber up the surface, don white gumboots and begin compacting and urgent it down by stepping on the combination.

Thereafter, each day for an entire yr, the liquid that seeps from the fish is drained after which returned into the vat — however, critically, there is not any stirring or mixing concerned, as occurs in fish sauce manufacturing in different provinces of Vietnam.

Employees monitor the contents, tasting the sauce to resolve when a batch is prepared.

President Obama joins Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi for a crash course in Vietnamese eating.

A part of the key within the sauce is Phú Quốc’s distinctive mixture of environmental elements, together with the precise humidity and warmth that slowly lets the combination scale back down, to depart between three and 4 thousand liters of fish sauce per barrel.

The ultimate stage comes once they ship a pattern of the sauce to the lab to get a grade of the depth, measured in levels of nitrogen, a byproduct of the fermentation course of. With out the right stage, it can’t be licensed on the bottle’s label.

The mildest model begins from 35° N, whereas essentially the most intense are round 45° N.

Phú Quốc fish sauces — there are greater than 70 completely different producers on the island — are likely to have increased levels of nitrogen content material, leading to advanced and completely different taste profiles.

The primary press

For those who’re after essentially the most prized and costly fish sauce, it’s drawn straight from the primary press of a single vat, undiluted and unmixed.

Search for the phrases “nước mắm nhi” on the label. Which means it has come from the barrel’s first extraction of liquid. Some name it “extra-virgin fish sauce.”

“Fish sauce is the nationwide soul, the nationwide essence of the Vietnamese folks, which units the nation’s delicacies aside from the remainder of the world,” says Anon. “In each Vietnamese meal, a small bowl takes satisfaction of place, a sauce that ties collectively all the things on the desk.”

He explains that listed here are a number of layers to the style.

“It will be too easy to say that fish sauce tastes fishy, and even salty. High quality blends have a briny, rounded style that you may even pattern straight from the bottle. Your thoughts may go to the style of contemporary fish, or to sitting on the seaside.

“Fish sauce typically has a contact of sweetness, a mineral taste, or a observe of caramel.”

Certainly, acclaimed advantageous eating eating places resembling Toyo in Manila — Filipinos are additionally big followers of fish sauce, domestically known as patis — and Anan in Ho Chi Minh Metropolis use fish sauce to sensible impact in candy dishes. Added to chocolate and ice cream respectively, they make for an totally scrumptious salted-caramel really feel.
Again in 2016 within the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, Anthony Bourdain took then-US President Obama for a humble bowl of bun cha, rice vermicelli with grilled pork. The important thing taste profile was, as Bourdain defined it, “nước mắm — the ever present Vietnamese fermented fish sauce.”

Obama’s verdict?

“That is killer.”

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