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.)
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.
Communion 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.
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.
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.