CNN praised fish sauce as a culinary symbol of Vietnam, an indispensable national ingredient in typical local dishes.
But according to author Chris Dwyer, the process of making fish sauce is not “comfortable” due to the pungent taste emanating from anchovies fermented in large wooden barrels for a whole year.
However, that does not stop thousands of curious tourists every year from finding a traditional fish sauce production unit on Phu Quoc island.
This unit has been in the fish sauce business since the 1950s and boasts a reputation as one of the top producers on “Pearl Island”, where many Vietnamese claim to have the best fish sauce in the country.
Go for the original taste
According to the chef of one of the most luxurious resorts on Phu Quoc Island, many beautiful Vietnamese dishes they serve to visitors, such as seafood, pomelo salad or fried lobster served with greens, largely underpinned by its unique flavor and outstanding umami – the signature salty taste of delicious local fish sauce.
And the taste of fish sauce is present in most Vietnamese dishes such as pho, spring rolls, broken rice, banh xeo, rice pot and many more.
How is fish sauce made?
The important ingredients in fish sauce are anchovies (black anchovies) and small white anchovies. They account for about 95% of the fish used. Larger fish like sardines and herring make up the rest.
Traditionally, fish would be caught in the sea around Phu Quoc, but today most fish are taken from Tho Cho island, about 112 km away. They are caught during the rainy season, from April to September every year.
Fish sauce producers have their own fishing boats, which allows them to monitor the entire production process. Once the fish are caught, they are immediately drained right on the boat, then salted and stored, meaning that fermentation begins with using the freshest fish possible.
They use salt from the southern coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and add in the ratio of one part salt to four parts fish.
When the fishing boat comes ashore, the staff in the yard will bring back about 200 kg of fish and mix them together in their own tanks.
Container for making fish sauce
Previously, fish sauce barrels were handmade from sua wood, a tree grown in Phu Quoc National Park, but because of many risks, this wood had to be imported from Cambodia. Some have likened the importance of wood to the important process of making fish sauce, such as oak barrels for aging, helping to bring out the unique flavor.
The giant crates are made from 54 wooden slats, tied by hand with rattan fiber. It took two skilled male craftsmen up to three weeks to make such a wooden crate.
After the barrel is filled with fish and salt, the craftsman will stir the mixture and then begin to compress and force it down by stepping on it.
Over the next year or so, the liquid that came out of the fish was poured back into the tank – but importantly, there was no further agitation. This is the difference in fish sauce production in Phu Quoc compared to other provinces of Vietnam.
Workshop workers always monitor the ingredients, taste the fish sauce to decide when a batch has been brewed.
Part of the secret in Phu Quoc fish sauce is a unique combination of environmental factors, including humidity and the right temperature, so that the amount of the mixture is gradually reduced to between three and four thousand liters of fish sauce per barrel.
The final stage is to send a sample of the fish sauce to a lab to evaluate its density, which is measured by nitrogen, a byproduct of fermentation.
There are more than 70 different fish sauce manufacturers on Phu Quoc Island. Most of their products have a higher nitrogen content than the market, so the taste will be stronger.
Famous fish sauce
If you are looking for the most expensive and prized fish sauce, it is the fish sauce that is drawn directly from the first press of a single barrel, undiluted and unmixed aka “nhi fish sauce”. Some people call it “super pure fish sauce”.
Spanish chef Bruno Anon is a fan of fish sauce and said: “Fish sauce is the national soul, the national essence of the Vietnamese people, what makes this country’s cuisine distinct from the rest of the world. In every Vietnamese meal, the small bowl of dipping sauce is what unites everything on the table.”
Mr. Anon explained that fish sauce has many layers of flavor.
“It would be one-sided to say that fish sauce only tastes fishy or salty. Quality fish sauce mixes sometimes have sweet, mineral or caramel flavors.”
Famous gourmet restaurants like Toyo in Manila, Philippines are also very fond of fish sauce and are called patis by locals. Or even a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City uses fish sauce to create a dazzling effect for sweet dishes. They are added to chocolate and ice cream to create an incredibly delicious salty caramel sensation.
Back in 2016 when Anthony Bourdain hosted then-US President Obama in a bun cha restaurant, Bourdain explained that the main flavor of this dish is “a dipping sauce made from the popular fermented fish sauce of Vietnam”.
And Obama had to exclaim: “That’s the ‘killer’ of this dish”.