Nuoc mam, nam plah, fish sauce – whatever name it goes by, few condiments hold the polarising power among world foodies as does this salty brown sauce. Equal parts hated and adored around the globe, fish sauce’s powerful fishy odour is pungent to say the least. For many, the smell alone is enough to keep it far away from their food.
But in Vietnam, fish sauce holds a very special place in their hearts of locals – and another on their dinner tables. After all, few Vietnamese dishes are without a dash (or, more often, a hefty helping) of fish sauce, and its flavour has become synonymous with much of Vietnam’s already renowned culinary classics.
So what exactly is the big deal with fish sauce in Vietnam, and how has it become such a staple of the country’s iconic fare? For a visitor to Vietnam, perhaps the best way to get to the root of the country’s love affair with fish sauce is to learn to enjoy it like a local.
How It’s Made
Fish sauce, or nuoc mam, had its humble beginnings in Vietnam thanks to the country’s most prominent geographical characteristic – the coast. With over 3,000 kilometres of coastline, this iconic condiment is linked with fish, one of Vietnam’s most important food sources.
Like much of Vietnam’s best dishes, fish sauce is the product of a lengthy yet simple process. To make it, the bottom of earthenware jars or wooden boxes are first lined with salt, then layered with freshly rinsed fish. The procedure is repeated until the jars or boxes are filled with a fish to salt ratio of 3 to 1. Left to ferment for nine months to a year under direct sun light, the concoction is removed, filtered, and left an additional two weeks in the open air. Only then is the smelly condiment ready to be bottled.
Where to Get It
Alongside magnificent beaches and exotic seafood, Phu Quoc is best known for one of its most produced goods: Nuoc Mam Phu Quoc. The island is so famous for it, in fact, that many other producers also brand themselves with the island’s name (even though their production is far away from Phu Quoc).
But since Nuoc Mam Phu Quoc isn’t always easy to find in local supermarkets while travelling, Thailand’s Golden Boy fish sauce is also considered among the top tier, and might be easier to spot. Squid, although not as outstanding, is a widely sold brand especially, too, and a nice alternative that’s easier to find in Western countries. But just in case name memorisation isn’t your forte, here’s a little trick to help you pick out a good sauce: look for those with a clear brown colour, resembling whiskies’, without any sediments. Avoid muddy, thick brown sauce, as they are likely to have not been properly fermented.
How to Eat It
… as an Ingredient
If you’re digging into Vietnamese culinary classics, you will inevitably eat a dish or two with a hefty helping of fish sauce as an ingredient. Most commonly, fish sauce is a popular marinade for meats, and lends a certain level of intensity and flavour to otherwise less tasty dishes.
Unlike fish sauce as a condiment, the pungent fishy smell of fish sauce is hardly distinguishable in final cooked dishes, since it’s often simmered for hours before serving. Otherwise, fish sauce is a popular addition to stir-fries just before the stove is turned off to avoid it overpowering other flavours.
… as a Condiment
When used as the dipping sauce, fish sauce is normally combined with other ingredients in a tasty concoction. What it is mixed with, though, depends largely on the region you’re eating it, with those mixtures varying widely from north to south.
In northern cities like Hanoi, the mix is diluted with water and combined with sugar, garlic, lime or vinegar, and topped with sliced chili. Called nuoc mam toi, or garlic fish sauce, it smells more strongly of garlic than fish (a feat, given fish sauce’s intense smell), and is an essential companion for eating local.
In the South, coconut juice is the ticket for the locally preferred sugary taste. By simmering coconut juice until halved and then adding lime and sugar, the mixture is then topped with the fish sauce for a decidedly sweeter option.
In the Central region however, pure fish sauce is considered best and most flavourful, so sugar and garlic are not used. A squeeze of lime and crushed chili might be added, but otherwise, just a bowl of pure fish sauce is considered perfect.
Although it might not be love at first sight, fish sauce has earned itself a place among Vietnamese culinary classics, and continues to be a local favourite in the country. And with Vietnam wowing foodies the world over, perhaps it’s just a matter of time before other countries further afield are harbouring a love for fish sauce as intense as its home country. For now, though, we’ll settle for simply getting you to give it a try or two yourself!
Try This… Mam, fish sauce with a twist!
Nuoc mam is not the only product from the fermentation of fish and salt. Mam, a local favourite, is a thicker, paste-like liquid, typically made from varieties of seafood. But like many local specialities, it’s not a taste for everyone.
Unlike fish sauce, mam is made when both the flesh and liquid are extracted from the jars, instead of just the liquid. In the southern region of Vietnam, you are more likely to find mam with a famous regional specialty, mam ca, or fish with mam sauce. In the North, try mam tom and mam tep, and when venturing through the central coast, order a dish of tom chua or mam ruoc.
But before you do, decide if you’re in for a truly in-depth culinary experience – mam has a stronger and more pungent taste than fish sauce, and can send even the most audacious of foodies reeling. So be weary!
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