F is for Fish Sauce, Flavour, Phan Thiết and Phú Quốc

nuoc cham and fresh herbs

The Vietnamese alphabet has no letter F. But it does have the letter PH, as in phở, and also Phan Thiết  and Phú Quốc, two places famous for fish sauce. The former is a southeastern coastal city. The latter is both Việt Nam’s biggest island and a district that includes this island and twenty-two smaller ones, tucked under the curve of Cambodia’s coast, in the Gulf of Thailand.

In his book Bút Khảo Về Ăn (Notes on Eating), Dr. Lê Văn Lân relates an old folk tale that he remembers his mother telling him. Here’s my rough translation:

A long time ago, a northern village held a feast-tasting challenge to open the spring celebrations. The banquet table groaned under a spread of the rarest foods of the mountains and seas. Whoever could correctly name the tastiest dish would win. According to tradition, the competitors entered one by one. A single drum beat would signify that a person had chosen the wrong dish. Three beats in a row would signify a winner. Some contestants immediately chose the dish of shark’s fin and abalone, and immediately heard the single beat of the drum. Others sampled the very strangest and most precious dish, and yet heard the drum beat before even swallowing the first bite.

At sunset, a stooped and silver-haired man arrived. He’d left his distant village at dawn and travelled all day. Leaning on his cane, he inched around the entire banquet table, eyeing each dish. Finally, he stopped. Serenely, he dipped his chopsticks into a tiny dish of fish sauce in the middle of the table, allowed a single drop to fall from the chopsticks onto the center of his tongue, closed his eyes and smacked his lips awhile, then nodded: “This is the only dish worthy of the title ‘most delicious’. All the foods on this banquet table—without this, they are nothing.” The drum beats rolled continuously, announcing that he had won.

I wasn’t going to write about fish sauce, because I didn’t think I had anything new to say about it. It’s such a central ingredient in the Vietnamese kitchen that articles about it abound on the web. In the Western kitchen, it’s not the unusual ingredient it once was. You no longer have to go to an Asian market to find it, because many supermarket chains carry it too.

This thought led me to remember an article I read in the paper a number of years (ok, decades) ago, about a couple who ran a Vietnamese restaurant in Ottawa, and the food they served there. The woman said that when she first arrived in Canada with one of the waves of boat people, she craved fish sauce but couldn’t find it anywhere. A few years later, she discovered some at a grocery store. She was so excited about her purchase that she rushed home and took a sip straight from the bottle. The pungent flavour transported her back to her homeland.

That story has always stayed with me. I kept the clipping for the longest time, but eventually, deciding I didn’t need the basic recipes in the article, I recycled it. I wish I had it now. (Never give away books, nor recycle articles.)

bánh bột lọc  with nước chấm
When I used to lead tours of Huế, my tourists would sometimes be lucky enough to meet this woman selling bánh bột lọc in the Thanh Toàn Tiled Bridge. Her nước chấm (fish sauce-based dipping sauce) was always dark and fiery. Fish sauce is “what makes Vietnamese food uniquely Vietnamese,” says Nicole Routhier in her book The Foods of Vietnam,  but fish sauce is popular all over Southeast Asia, and it’s been around in one form or another since Roman Times.

The Vietnamese call it nước mắm (meaning fermented-fish water), and the best is made from cá cơm (rice fish), a silvery anchovy the size of my little finger, fermented with salt in wooden barrels or clay vessels. Everyone seems to agree that the very best comes from the island of Phú Quốc. But caveat emptor: the words Phú Quốc grace the labels on nước mắm from other parts of Việt Nam and even from Thailand, though efforts have been made to prevent this.

In her book Communion, A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, Kim Fay says that “(Phú Quốc) fish sauce is so highly regarded, at least inside Vietnam, that it is protected by the Ministry of Culture, which has made it illegal to put the Phú Quốc label on any fish sauce not from the island.”

In 2013, The EU commission awarded Phú Quốc fish sauce with Protected Designation of Origin certification, making Việt Nam’s fish sauce the first Southeast Asian product ever to receive this certification.

fish sauce in Phan Thiet
includes two informative chapters on fish sauce, entitled, of course, “Afishionados” and “Fish Sauce Snob”. I’ve always wanted to visit a fish sauce plant, but still haven’t managed to do so. Kim toured one in Phan Thiết and then took part in a fish sauce tasting (yes, sipped straight up!). Her tasting notes confirm that I should keep this in my plans. As I mentioned in a review of Communion,  I’d hoped to visit a Phan Thiết fish sauce factory (that has a ring to it, doesn’t it!) during my first visit to Việt Nam over ten years ago, but I was with my niece who was battling culture shock and requested that I not even speak the word “fish sauce”.

Top quality nước mắm is just fish layered with salt and fermented for a year or more. Nothing added. But there’s more to it than that. Like olive oil, the first extraction is the most desirable. Labeled “nước mắm nhỉ”, it contains the highest percentage of protein (as much as 40%). The second and third extractions are for cooking.

mango salad + bamboo beef
I go through a lot of fish sauce in my kitchen, using it for dipping sauces, marinades such as the one for the beef for this sautéed bamboo beef dish, salad dressing like the one for the green mango salad on the right, and there might even be a teaspoonful in the soup to enhance the flavour the way salt would, but with more oomph.

In Canada, I’d always bought a Thai brand of fish sauce that wasn’t quite nước mắm nhỉ but it was still good enough to use for a dipping sauce. I never really thought about the different grades. In my mother-in-law’s kitchen in Huế, I discovered just how different the various grades are when I used the wrong bottle to make the nước chấm. I’d graduated from my position as chief garlic and chili masher to maker of the dipping sauce each evening. My mother-in-law approved of my addition of lime juice, even though it wasn’t part of her recipe for nước chấm. I was almost demoted back to garlic masher when we had to toss out the coffee-coloured, salty salty salty results of my mistake. I didn’t even like that fish sauce for cooking. When I dipped my pinky in and tasted a drop, I had to swish my mouth with water. It didn’t taste fishy at all. More like burnt salt.

While this cooking sauce was almost black, top quality nước mắm has a lovely amber hue. It has a much milder scent too; to my nose, it even smells pleasant, but the pungency of fish sauce turns some people off. One friend of mine cannot stand to be in the same room with an open bottle of it. He’s no fan of nước chấm either. However, he admits that when used in cooking, it adds magic to the food.

It’s a great stealth ingredient. If the cook is heavy-handed, the results can be overpoweringly salty, but add just a spoonful to a pot of spaghetti sauce and taste the results. No one will know what you did. A secret weapon.

One of my favourite Vietnamese cooking methods is called kho, which means, more or less, to stew in fish sauce and caramel sauce. I often prepare salmon this way, adding chilis, coconut milk and green onions, and garnishing the dish with plenty of coriander. My husband’s mother taught me her methods for making “wet” pork kho and “dry” pork kho, and I make these often too.

I recently read about a new whiskey-barrel-aged fish sauce that sounds intriguing, though I’m not sure if my mother-in-law would approve of it. According to an article in Food and Wine:

“Red Boat has teamed up with the artisans at Michigan-based Blis Foods: They start with Red Boat’s finest 40*N fish sauce, which has already spent a year aging in wooden barrels, and age it for another 17 months or so in proprietary bourbon barrels previously used to age Blis maple syrup. Between the smoke from bourbon and wood and the mellow sweetness from the maple, the fish sauce becomes a rich-tasting, deeply nuanced condiment that’s as delicious in aioli and vinaigrette as it is in the classic Vietnamese condiment called nuoc chấm.”

Red boat is said to be a very fine fish sauce, but I haven’t tried it. It’s not available in Canada (as far as I know), and I haven’t seen it yet in Việt Nam, although it’s made right in Phú Quoc.

banh uot
These bánh ướt wouldn’t be the same without the chili-dotted nước chấm on the left. Nước chấm is such a common and indispensable table condiment in Việt Nam, used for dipping lettuce- or rice paper-wrapped rolls, grilled meats, vegetables, fish, or even for drizzling on rice. I don’t measure my ingredients any more, relying instead on my eyes, nose and tongue, but below are the guidelines I give to friends when they ask for the recipe. Every Vietnamese cook has their own preferred ratio of ingredients, depending on where they are from and also on what dish the dipping sauce will accompany.

Feel free to experiment, using less sugar, and more or less lime juice or even none at all. My husband’s mother’s recipe, typical of the Huế kitchen, includes no lime juice, very little sugar, and is quite strong, while friends of mine in Sài Gòn always make their nước chấm quite sweet and thin.

I’ve seen many recipes that include rice vinegar, but I’ve always preferred it without. In her book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavours, Andrea Nguyen says that adding rice vinegar “actually brightens the flavors and softens any harsh or bitter edges contributed by the lime juice.” Her recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar along with the other ingredients to make 1½ cups of  nước chấm. Other recipes include ginger or tamarind, both delicious with fish, chicken or duck.

Nước Chấm (Basic Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)

1 chili, chopped roughly
1 small or 1/2 large garlic clove, chopped or mashed
1 TB sugar
2 1/2 TB fish sauce
3/4 TB lime juice (fresh squeezed, about 1/4 of a lime)
1/3 C water

Combine everything and stir well to dissolve the sugar.  Taste and adjust as desired.  You may include a little of the lime pulp, or add some julienned carrot and daikon for a decorative look.

If you have a mortar and pestle, you can pound the ginger and chili first, which helps to release their flavours and if you use red chilis, it will give a lovely reddish cast to the finished sauce.

People like to use red chilis for their colour, but my husband prefers the flavour of green chilis, and these work well too. Nước chấm is best prepared fresh, but it will keep well in the fridge for a few days if tightly covered.  This recipe can be doubled or quadrupled, but it’s more than enough for two people for one meal.

About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
This entry was posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Photos, Recipes, Viet Nam and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

78 Responses to F is for Fish Sauce, Flavour, Phan Thiết and Phú Quốc

  1. Great article. I like your anecdotes, especially you’re near “demotion”. Vietnamese kitchens have high standards–I “lost my job” cutting vegetables once because I wasn’t used to cutting them so precisely. I’ve gotten better. By the way, we’ve tried Red Boat fish sauce. My husband bought it in San Jose, CA during a trip to see relatives, and now we stock up on it whenever we visit. It’s perfect for making dipping sauce with. I hope that you can find it in Canada soon.

    • Chris says:

      They do indeed have high standards! Even the outdoor ones and the ones that are just a cutting board and a two-burner stove. Thanks for the comment, Michelle.

  2. Jane Hammons says:

    your pictures make my mouth water!

  3. Susi Lovell says:

    This is a great series you’re writing. I don’t know how you actually have time to write with all this cooking!

  4. ngsuberu says:

    Reblogged this on mirabelsuberu and commented:

  5. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  6. Fish sauce is indispensable in Vietnamese meals. We always use this sauce with rice and other dishes from children to adults. I must say we hardly live without fish sauce. Actually, there are many kind of fish sauce in Viet Nam. We have Nha Trang fish sauce, Phan thiết fish sauce… and of course Phú Quốc fish sauce. Each of them has different color (from greenish to brownish) or even different taste. I am glad that you enjoy our native cuisine. Thanks for sharing this amazing post and let the world know some of our nation beauties 🙂

  7. I came across this post from Freshly Pressed: such insightful writing that really makes me envy your travels!

  8. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    Yum. So sad my favorite vietnamese restaurants have closed or burnt down 😥
    Now I have a craving…

  9. Reblogged this on rifkifaisal16 and commented:
    Vietnamese original

    posted by: Chris Galvin

  10. Love your post, I’m new here

  11. Reblogged this on Wanderlust Ivy and commented:
    I absolutely loveeeeee Vietnamese cuisine!

  12. Harsha MP says:

    Congrats on FP’d. Nice post & interesting pics

  13. I love your post !
    Follow please : 😉

  14. jessalizzi says:

    This is a very fascinating post! Thank you for sharing. Jess 🙂

  15. chrisottey says:

    keep up the good work love pric nom pla!!!

  16. Carlo Madrid says:

    Great Post! Please keep sharing post like this as we are very interested in sharing and reading this.. Thanks!

  17. arezufashionista says:

    Thank you for sharing 🙂

  18. Michael says:

    Great post. Worth to be freshly pressed for sure… I just love asian kitchen, just recently discovering Vietnamese style some more now… and your writing is inspiring. michasfoodblog.com will follow you now! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  19. Nice Post, pretty interesting!!!

  20. Jamie Ray says:

    Great post. Fish sauce is my #1 example of condiments I would never try to make at home. I’m lucky to live in NYC, and have access to fish sauces of many cultures, including garum. Like you, I often throw some fish sauce into what I’m cooking to bump up the flavor, irrespective of the ethnicity of the dish, and will use it mixed with water as a cheap and convenient substitute for/alternative to canned chicken broth.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Jamie, thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t try making it at home either. It can be done, but it’s “fragrant”. Imagine what a whole fish sauce village smells like when the wind is just right. But I guess people get used to anything.

      • Jamie Ray says:

        The stinkiest thing I ever made from scratch was Kim Chee. It was delicious, but quite fragrant while it was pickling (and every time I opened the container my partner commented that it was Kim Chee time). So I can imagine.

  21. What a nice article! Thanks for sharing.

  22. luubaochau2002 says:

    My country’s foods are good , right ?

  23. I like fish sauce, but prefer pepper salt better! 😀
    Steamed Clams with lemon grass and pepper salt.

  24. Reblogged this on the3rdcoyote and commented:
    I am so hungry … and so home sick …

  25. Michelle StirFried says:

    The fish sauce to be used with rolls also has different types do you know? 🙂 Mostly the major ingredients to mix the sauce would be rice vinegar (surprising right? you don’t really taste it in the food – vinegar is used more than lime juice), sugar, water and obviously the fish sauce. Other than that people would put cut red chillies, peanuts (garlic for fried spring rolls) and a bunch of herbs. Lime juice is just to add taste. Other than fish sauce, Vietnamese also invented quite a variety to interesting ones to be used with different foods. The Bánh Ướt dish, we Northern like to call it Bánh cuốn, that one has a few types as well and that’s my favourite! You seem to have a huge interest on Vietnamese culinary. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for reading and for your comment, Michelle. I considered going into more of the details you mention, but I thought the post was getting long, so maybe best to save some of these ideas for another post. Concerning vinegar, as I mentioned in the post, I just find I don’t care for it that much and prefer just lime juice. Mỗi người một ý, ai cũng có lý, right? 🙂
      Bánh Ướt is one of my favourites too!
      “A huge interest”…haha, well I cook it for almost every meal, so it’s unavoidable. Come back for more of my A to Z posts, because they’re all on Vietnamese foods and ingredients. I’ll be doing G next.

  26. Love this post, it’s the back stories that make cookery writing so interesting. I was transported to Vietnam and haven’t actually made it there yet – but soon I hope!!!!

  27. Reblogged this on Brouhaha Access and commented:
    Ok I am from Thailand and I love fish sauce too. I chuckled reading through Chris’ blog, about this smelly yet essential asian cooking ingredient, as I was reminded how many times I introduced the infamous sauce to my American friends. Fish sauce…hell no was what they said in the beginning. Now it’s I need some of that fish sauce to make this dish…score one for fish sauce. I really enjoyed the blog.

  28. Great blog on fish sauce. I had to reblog on my blog because I wanted others to read it. I look forward to reading more blogs from you.

  29. A.K. Maleeke says:

    Great blog on fish sauce.

  30. Reblogged this on rekcon and commented:
    i m so hungry now

  31. There is something I’d like to inform you. If u wanna try Sấu ngâm please make it at home (like my family did) follows these steps:
    – Fresh Sấu cut the stem to run out all the latex, washed with clean water, peeled.
    – Soaked in diluted salt water, then wash with clean water several times.
    – Boil hot water, then drowns Sấu until the yellowish appears, pour the fruits to basket for cooling.
    – Cook sugar with water (1 liter water with 0.8 kg sugar), when it boiled, drop pounded ginger into the pot.
    – Boiling sugar water for about 1-2 minutes, then waiting for the water cool down.
    – Pour sugar water in clean jar, put Sấu into the jar, keep the jar in cool and dry place.
    – After 2-3 days, you can use it as a beverage.
    – After 5 days, you should keep it in the fridge and enjoy it.
    Please don’t buy Sấu ngâm which you don’t know it’s origins.
    P/S: I hope you can understand my English 😦

    • Chris says:

      Great! Thanks for sharing! And yes, your English is very clear. 🙂 It’s great to have a recipe for this, because I think it would be hard to find such a recipe. I’ve never seen sấu ngâm in a recipe book.

  32. This is a lovely series you’re writing! I can’t wait to read more. 🙂

  33. Well written with some nice recipe ideas. Great article, can I link it to my page on Vietnamese food?! http://backpackerlee.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/vietnamese-foodporn/

  34. Pingback: Vietnamese Foodporn | backpackerlee

  35. Reblogged this on floretaisidro and commented:
    same, F is not only fish sauce,floreta is my family name

  36. C.J. Peter says:

    Reblogged this on Casey's Blogorama Now with more Taxi-bells! and commented:
    Saving this one more or less for me, but it is a fine read for foodies as well. Viva le fish sauce! 🙂

  37. OK, Chris. As promised, here’s my feedback on Red Boat fish sauce, which I’ve been using for about 2 months now. Is it worth the price? Yes & no. You can definitely ‘taste’ the anchovies. It seems less harsh than common brands. It certainly is familiar to me for I grew up with Phu Quoc’s natives, the maternal side of my family. If you use it for raw dipping (un-diluted, straight out of the bottle) with soup, Vietnamese style, or nuoc mam song, then it’s worth it. If you’re to mix it as a dipping sauce for rolls, noodles & fried dishes, then it’s not. After cutting with water, adding lime/lemon juice, sugar, garlic & pepper, you can no longer tell it apart from other brands.

  38. Chris says:

    Sonny, thanks so much for your opinion about the Red Boat fish sauce. I really have to try it some day. Especially now that the news is out that 80% of Phu Quoc fish sauce isn’t from there at all. I rarely use FS pure / nuoc mam song, but use it often for dipping sauces like the one I described above. Maybe if I tasted a really high quality one, that would change. Still really want to do a proper fish sauce tasting one day.

  39. I remember the first few times I tried to use fish sauce. It was hard to get the balance right and it was not fragrant as it should be but briny. I did have to throw it away! Luckily I have learnt to cook and make dipping sauce with fish sauce. I had no idea there were different grades. Interesting and informative article. I will have to go back to your blog and work through the alphabet! Thanks for sharing

    • Chris says:

      Thanks, Red Roo! Is the fish sauce you use now the same brand as the one you tried the first time? That could make a difference. Glad you enjoyed the post. J for jackfruit is coming soon…

      • When I started out, it was down to using too much fish sauce rather than the brand itself! I think it’s great in cooking. Mmmm Jackfruit. Looking forward to reading your next post.

  40. Pingback: J is for Jackfruit (Mít) | Chris Galvin

  41. Pingback: P is for Preserves and my Favourite Vietnamese Chilli Paste | Chris Galvin

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