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Fish sauce - The soul of Vietnamese cuisine

Monday, 03/13/2017 08:29
What makes Vietnamese cuisine different from other countries’? Fish sauce is the answer, even though Vietnam is neither the only country “uses” fish sauce nor gives birth to this “legendary” liquid extract.

Being the specialty for years

Historical documents and archaeological evidence recognized by European historians have shown that fish sauce was originated from Carthage, an ancient republic country in North Africa and now it is a part of Tunisia. Since the 2nd century BC, people of Carthage had invented a method of draining roused fish under Mediterranean sun heat to create Carthaginian fish sauce, which was not only for domestic usage but also for sale to neighbor countries in the other side of Mediterranean.

Year 146 BC, the Roman invaded Carthage and took over the Carthaginian secret of making fish sauce. From North Africa, making fish sauce technique was imported to Rome then spread out to the lands of Cartagena and Baelo Claudia (now belongs to Spain) and Bretagne (France), and it was so called garum by European people. Imprints of garum in European cuisine existed in Roman ancient history and in amphoras (high narrow neck potteries which were used to contain garum) currently exhibited in Popei Museum (Italia) and in an archaeology ruin in Bretagne, France. In the 5th century AD, from Europe, garum and the technique of making this liquid extract followed “maritime silk road” (silk road sea) to Asia and became yulu of Chinese, ishiri (sauce from squid) and ishiru (fish sauce) of Japanese, nam pla of the Thai, kecap ikan of Indonesians, patis of the Philippines, or nuoc mam of Vietnamese.

In nearly a thousand years, from 5th to 15th century, fish sauce was widely used in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. Not until the Chinese invented soy sauce from fermented soybeans then used it as a common substitute condiment, fish sauce fell into oblivion of those culinary cultures.

There is no document that mentioned time and place where fish sauce originated in Vietnam, except for some documental myths that Vietnamese learnt to make fish sauce from Cham people. However, some archaeological explorations and relevant documents partially recognize such origin. Accordingly, Cham’s land, which located in South Central of Vietnam, was once a “powerful maritime kingdom”. Trading boats of Cham people had passed over the sea for seaborne trading with Arab countries then reaching to Mediterranean. Archaeologists from Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, University of Sydney (Australia) found some fish sause wooden cases on a Cham’s trading boat, which was defined to be on its seaborne trading route to ancient Rome (around 4th century BC).

Fish sauce was mentioned in the first history book of Vietnam named “Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt” (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, the only woodblock printed version in the year of Chinh Hoa 18th (1697). This edition mentioned the event of Emperor Zhenzong of Song Dynasty recognized Empepor Lê Đại Hành of Đại Việt and abrogated fish sauce submission from Đại Việt that had been previously demanded by prior Chinese dynasties. Consequently, until the 10th century as the latest, Vietnamese had known how to produce and use fish sauce. At that time, fish sauce became Vietnamese specialty that spread its fame to China, making the emperors requested fish sauce submission from Đại Việt before changing into soy sauce in 14th century.

Fish sauce represents solidarity and companionate in daily meals.

Being an ingredient, condiment, and medicine

Vietnamese fish sauce, therefore, had a long history of over 1,000 years. Even though fish sauce was originated in Africa, took up by European then spreading to Asia; even though Chinese and Japanese knew and used fish sauce 500 years earlier than Vietnamese did; even though Korean, Thais, Philippines still currently use fish sauce in their cuisine, Vietnamese fish sauce has remained a quintessence of our culinary culture and been a criterion for recognition of Vietnamese cuisine. Why?

The first reason is the way Vietnamese using fish sauce. If people in other countries use fish sauce as a solvent to preserve food as Korean use fish sauce in kimchi, or seasoning for better taste as Thai people do with their mixing salads, Vietnamese use it as all aspects, an ingredient, a condiment, a main dish, and even a medicine.

As an ingredient, fish sauce is used in all Vietnamese dishes, especially boiled dishes or salads. Those dishes would not be delicious because the food themselves are not flavorful enough without fish sauce (or soy sauce) or dipping sauce.

As a condiment, fish sauce is used as seasoning for all Vietnamese dishes, apart from vegetarian food, in order to increase their flavors and tastes, to make the food smoother and tastier. The way Vietnamese using fish sauce to relish is just so diverse, sophisticated and amazing. Some dishes require to be marinated with fish sauce before cooking, such as slow cooked dishes; some need to be seasoned with fish sauce during cooking to enhance flavors such as stir-fried dishes; some require to be finished with fish sauce for better taste like soups; and some just need to add fish sauce as condiment while having as congee.

Fish sauce itself is a complete dish. With a few drops of fish sauce on top of a bowl of rice or fresh made rice noodles, Vietnamese can fill up their stomach. To add lime juice, chilies, garlic, sugar into a cup of pure fish sauce or to thicken fish sauce with rural spices (Southern braised fish sauce) is to make a delicious dish, especially for labor workers.

As useful medicine, fish sauce provides high protein for consumers. The protein comes from fish, which is safer and more benign for human health than animal protein. To fishermen, fish sauce is a nutrient that replenishes and strengthens the body. Therefore, they often take a sip of fish sauce before diving into the deep sea to fight the cold and water pressure. Fish sauce is such a miracle to them!

Secondly, fish sauce is the soul of Vietnamese cuisine, which differentiates Vietnamese cuisine from other countries’. Moreover, some people even have the impression that fish sauce can change foreign dishes into Vietnamese ones. Therefore, some food experts commented: "Any dish of China or France with the presence of fish sauce has become Vietnamese. The value of fish sauce, thus, becomes one of a kind in culinary arts in particular, and in the vitality of the Vietnamese culture in general." At a glance, many Vietnamese dishes look alike Chinese, Thai or Korean but thanks to fish sauce and its featured flavor, they can be easily distinguished.

Lastly, fish sauce symbolizes solidarity and companionate of Vietnamese meal, where a small bowl of fish sauce is placed in the middle of the table; though not a delicacy, it is a dish that everyone would try and try without any intention to monopolize or have more than enough. In a Vietnamese meal, everyone is equal when having the fish sauce. Is there any other food that carries such great humanitarian value?

With such nutritional, historical, cultural and humane value, fish sauce deserves special recognition in the food industry as an ambassador of Vietnamese cuisine. Further, we should not damage fish sauce’s credibility in fierce battles for business profits after its more than 1,000 years peacefully nourishing the Vietnamese meal.

Read more:

>> Fish sauce in every drop

>> A brief history of fish sauce – Vietnam’s favorite condiment

Writer: Anh Son/ Nguoilaodong

Translator: Thu Pham

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