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Fish sauce in every drop

Saturday, 01/07/2017 08:43
Truthfully, master of fermented fish and salt careers is Chams. However, on the way to the South, King Nguyen and his pioneers had learned and created many more versions of fermented fish, especially fish sauce – nuoc mam.

LePetit Larousse – French dictionary – has recorded “le nuoc mam” and “le ao dai” as peak achievements of Vietnameses. Of course, at that time, artificial canned fish sauce had not been born.

Elite and delicate tea fish sauce

“It’s so aromatic, robustly sweet and salty! All we need are just fresh garlic and fresh chili to taste!”, exclaimed Mr. Phuoc, owner and chef of 2 famous restaurants in HCMC, after tasting exotic tea fish sauce.


Elite and delicate royal tea fish sauce.

Tea fish sauce has an amazing history, which was told by Mr. Nguyen Phuc Ung Vien, an inheritable doctor from Nguyen dynasty, “When Gia Du King arrived Thuan Hoi, a Cham respectfully offered the King a pot of pure fermented anchovy fish to show his loyalty. Opening it up and seeing a dense layer of fresh bamboo thorns, the King was panic. The King had thought that man wanted to poison him.” At his home, Mr. Nguyen Phuc Ung Vien continued the story that after questioning, the King was so surprised knowing that bamboo thorns and concentrated tea were to enrich fermented fish’s flavor, to make it more nutritious, to reduce the thirst, and also to help digestive system.

In his good mood, Mr. Ung Vien revealed another key element to qualify final fermented products, “Half value of fermented products base on quality of salt.” The best saltpan in Viet Nam is at Vung La and Vung Lam in Phu Yen province; the second is at Sa Huynh, Quang Ngai province; and the other next lay at Thai Binh, Phan Thiet (Binh Thuan province), Bac Lieu, and Ca Mau. However, the “snow salt” (salt on the surface) from Bac Lieu is believed the best salt on earth.


Quang Ngai small pork with tea fish sauce is so good that can cry for.

As his flow, he listed the golden names of traditional fish sauce. The most favorite is Trieu Son anchovy fish sauce (recently belongs to Xuan Tho 2 village, Song Cau town, Phu Yen province); the second best is Phu Hai anchovy fish sauce, Phan Thiet city, Binh Thuan province; the third is Go Cong Dong fish sauce, which is made from brackish water fish but recently, this village in Tien Giang province has withered; and the last on top list is Phu Quoc fish sauce.

Those golden names had recalled all good bright memories about Phu Quoc island.

Good wine needs no bush?

The first time being at coastal city Tuy Hoa (Qui Nhon province), my former classmate invited us to have home made lunch. The meal was not classy but it did make me to memorize till now. The reason was a bowl of pure fish sauce, Ba Muoi brand, with some smashed garlic cloves, some crushed peppers and cilantro. The fish sauce was served for fried fresh mackerel slices and the flavor was absolutely unforgettable.


Bean sprouts cakes in Giong market love to be with fish sauce seasoning.

Since then we had been “love sick” Phu Yen fish sauce. We kept calling my friend to send a whole case of Ganh Do fish sauce and couple hundreds Hoa Da ricepaper by shuttle bus to Ho Chi Minh city. With the same ingredients – anchovy fish and salt – Phu Yen fish sauce is more flavorful than Phu Quoc’s, and the after taste is smoother than Phan Thiet and Nha Trang’s.

Fish sauce hint on dainty food

The more to the South, the more blooming is this hard work career. Southern chefs, both famous and anonymous, are very well played, and Sai Gon has been an ideal place of bold food with fish sauce hint.

A simple yet clear example is Cha Dum (a fist of meat paste) in set menu of 7 beef courses at Ru restaurant at 27E Tran Nhat Duat, dist. 1. The core beef is still pinkish and smoothly fatty with kneaded lard. Beef paste was mixed with green beans and mushroom and seasoned by pure fish sauce to bring out a charming aroma and delicious taste.

The owner of the restaurant claimed that all his dishes were healthy without MSG and harmful preservatives.


Fist of beef paste.

Talking about the good old memories, my colleague recalled a feature dish of Hue – dipped meat in fish sauce. This dish requires a complex preparation as following:

- Ingredients: 3kgs beef shanks and beef tongues, 2kgs pork butt

- Clean throughout then steam 3 types separately till medium cooked. Let them cool down.

- Boil 2l fish sauce with white sugar (1:1 ratio) then let it cool down.

- Place steamed meat in container with bamboo holder. Pour fish sauce over. Cover and let the meat soak in for 5 days.

(According to food artisan Hoang Thi Nhu Huy, Arts of Hue cuisine, Phuong Nam publisher)

Another featured side dish of the Middle that can extremely stimulate the appetite is Tre (sour pork). The standard of good Tre must have crunchy pork (sliced ears, cheeks, and noses), spicy galangal, and unique flavor of roasted rice powder. The main taste of Tre is sour but salty and sweet tastes are also necessary. Chefs have used concentrated pure fish sauce, which has amber color and double salted. More important, they have had to use accurate amount of salt to hold probiotics from over-reproducing so that within 3 days, Tre would be ready to eat.


The glamour of rice-field fish sauce.

Or when you have a chance to go the romantic southwest, remember to stop by a small restaurant named Oanh on 1A national highway, where is closed to An Huu bridge (Tien Giang province). That tiny restaurant has a huge charm on diners because they use fish sauce made from rice-field fish, such as Sac (Trichogaster trichopterus), climbing perch (Anabas testudineus) or snakehead (Channa maculate). This type of fish sauce has no sweet and smooth scent as normal saltwater fish sauce, even its smell is hard to accept. However, when it blends in broth of hot pot or other rustic food, the smell becomes incredible.

During 1999 – 2000, this restaurant opened over night just to serve grilled pork ribs on rice for passengers on My Thuan fairy and a combo with rice and coffee cost 10000 vnd. From a tiny house of an old couple, it had turned to a new huge stop lately. Prices have increased due to living cost, around 40000 vnd but diners still stop and order.

Many Vietnamese from overseas who have come back the homeland after years couldn’t bear the familiar featured smell of the southwest and burst into tears at this restaurant.

Enriching the national featured cuisine by gold flakes

After a big commercial scandal about fish-seasonings and fish sauce, chef Ly Anh Tu (dist. 4, HCMC) wanted to make a bold idea about “blood of fish sauce” to specific serve with seafood. “The base has to be pure fish sauce, and then add some secret safe additives to set the golden red color off as supreme French wine. I’d drop some edible flakes of gold into this elite fish sauce and store them in small beautiful glass bottles as Vietnamese souvenirs. For sure international tourist will love it.”, passionately said chef Ly Anh Tu.


Go Cong Jumbo clams long for pure fish sauce.

Chef Anh Tu and other devotees of traditional fish sauce were deserved to see the rise of this national cuisine in culinary world. Fish sauce is a result from 6 to 9 months hard working of people and abundant resources of the Mother Nature. 4 tons of fish sauce bring only 120 – 150l pure fish sauce, according to Mr. Nguyen Cuong, who used to home-produce fish sauce in Hoi An, Quang Nam province.


Michael Bao Huynh, Culinary Director of VCG Food (207 Hoang Van Thu, Phu Nhuan dist., HCMC), “I choose both!”

Fish sauce and seasoning sauce have their own advantages and shortages but whatever happens, traditional fish sauce would survive.

However, traditional homemade fish sauce does not have even quality or long shelf life, and the most vital points - also the base and feature - are saltiness and fishy. Modern trend has been anti-salty food, especially youngsters. Moreover, busy working class in downtowns, who have spent most of their time working or studying, does not want to slow down to make himself a seasoned fish sauce for his daily meals. In addition, fishy smell would not be appreciated in certain places, such as luxury parties in air-conditioned rooms.

In my kitchen have always 2 bottles of fish sauce, a pure one from Phu Quoc and an instant seasoned one. It depends on the main course to use the proper fish sauce. For examples, a catfish sweet and sour hot pot or fried chicken wings has to have pure fish sauce.

In general, older generations are much more loyal to homemade fish sauce than the younger.


Mr. Nguyen Phuc Ung Vien, a inheritable doctor from Nguyen dynasty, has recently lived in Go Vap dist, HCMC, “Royal tea fish sauce is also used for sweet stuff.”

Tea fish sauce’s recipe of Chams has appeared since King Nguyen Hoang arriving Thuan Hoa and it was totally completed around 1821. The usages of concentrated tea are 1) to promote metabolism enzymes, in general, 2) to eliminate unwanted digesting effects, such as flatulence or GERD (Gastro esophageal Reflux Disease), or severe throat, 3) and to reduce smell and flavor of fermented fish.

There are totally 16 types of tea fish sauce, and the simplest one is done as description: traditionally fermenting and roasting mature tea leaves with an amount of 1/5 fresh fish; placing every ingredient into containers, layer by layer. After draining all first concentrated fish sauce, another amount of tea liquid will be added. They boil 1kg tea leaves with 2 – 3 table spoons salt grains to get tea extract, mix it with concentrated fish sauce then pour the mixture back to containers. 3 days later, fish sauce should reduce its normal fishy smell.

The golden tip here is that the amount of tea does not excess 20% the amount of fish sauce.

The other complex tea fish sauces are also used to season sweet stuff, such as 5 flavors sweet soup and traditional royal desserts to enrich the flavors and preserve fresh products longer.

Writer: Ta Tri - Photo: Tan Toi

Translator: Thu Pham

By Nguoi do do thi

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