The kingdom of fish sauce

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Bruce Weigl visits a fish sauce factory

I let a drop of nuoc mam fall into my cup of black coffee, a culinary trick not widely known outside of Phu Quoc Island, home to the best fish sauce in Vietnam. 

I'm sitting on the veranda of the Hoang family home; a light breeze blows in from the nearby harbor, where the company's four fishing boats are docked, waiting for the moon to call them back to sea. 

Dozens of birds, indigenous to this island, sing from their perches in the decorative cages that are hung throughout the sprawling garden. Roosters crow all afternoon and four Phu Quoc dogs nap at my feet. 

Sitting opposite me is Madam Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan, the kindly, 84-year-old founder of the famous Thanh Ha Fish Sauce Company. As she prepares for her afternoon meal she recalls the milestones of her long life on the island"”about the days when she and her husband had to work hard to raise their nine children.

In those days, they relied on fish sauce to take care of them all. 

She spoke of the war years, when everything she had was burned to the ground and she risked her life to bring food for her husband and his VC comrades as they battled American and South Vietnamese forces from the jungle. Without saying so, Madam Xuan conveys the pains she has endured to revive the methods of making Phu Quoc fish sauce after the war.

Bootlegging back home

 "Fish sauce" sounds like an alien abomination to most Americans. To me it is a pungent and evocative delicacy that has haunted me over the past forty-three years.

I became addicted to fish sauce while serving in the first Air Cavalry during the American War in Vietnam.

 I got my first taste of the stuff when a group of ARVN soldiers shared a meal with me on a base camp called Evans, thirty-five kilometers north of Hue.

After returning to America, I tried making my own version of the sauce at home. The resulting stench led my neighbors to call the police and complain of a terrible "death smell" emanating from somewhere in the neighborhood. When the officers arrived at my door, I had to explain that the only "bodies" in the neighborhood belonged to the dead fish I was allowing to rot behind my father's garage. The police made me promise to get rid of the stink and left.

The royal smell

I imagined I would have to face that same stink again when I touched down on Phu Quoc Island"”the kingdom of fish sauce. Much to my surprise, however, the island radiated with a sweet and attractive perfume.

For some years, I have been able to buy Phu Quoc fish sauce in America. The half-liter and one-liter bottles are amazingly cheap.  However, on Phu Quoc, I came to realize that each drop of nuoc mam glitters with the labor of the fishermen, who spend days drifting across the sea searching for schools of long-jawed anchovies. 

Way back when, the anchovies were abundant and fishermen did not have to travel far. Nowadays, they must sail at least a hundred kilometers from shore to net the prized fish"”the exclusive ingredient of the Phu Quoc sauce. 

Stepping aboard Thanh Ha's fleet of fishing boats, I had the opportunity to talk to the fishermen, who proudly demonstrated their method. They showed me how they use lights to draw the anchovies to the surface of the ocean on moonless nights and sweep them up with large nets. They explained how they seal their catches in ice and salt.

I was surprised to find out that these fishing boats were kept so clean, they did not smell at all. The salt and large blocks of ice were carefully prepared prior to our voyage. Strict hygienic standards were observed during our trip. As soon as the fish were unloaded at the docks, the deck was washed and scrubbed clean.

After the boat was docked at the harbor, every net (600-700 meters long and 75 meters deep) was inspected for the many holes caused by bigger fish and strong currents. A group of sweating women laughed as they mended the holes under parachute-like tents.

They worked swiftly to ensure that the boat will head out to sea, on time, the following day and happily invited me to share their delicious lunch of raw salad, stewed pork and fish sauce in the shade of their tent. The meal was made all the more enjoyable by their laughter.

The magic method

Visiting the fish sauce factories in Phu Quoc, I quickly realized how ridiculous my own "method" was. Instead of letting the fish ferment on skewers (like I did behind my dad's garage) Phu Quoc's traditional sauce-smiths stuff the fish into hand-made wooden barrels that can last up to 60, and sometimes even 100, years.

The traditional process is both natural and painstaking.

Immediately after the anchovies are caught, they are sealed in salt and stored in the cool hold of the ship. The minute the marinated fish (or chuop) are unloaded at the harbor, they are transferred into wooden barrels. After each barrel is filled, a thick layer of salt is poured over the surface and the fermentation process begins. Each barrel of fish sauce takes between 12 and 18 months to "ripen." 

The resulting juices are drawn from the bottom of the barrel and pumped continuously back over the fish to spur the fermentation process and increase the protein levels in the fish sauce. After the resulting liquid achieves the desired smell, color and protein content, it is bottled in Phu Quoc or transferred to Ho Chi Minh City, where it is bottled and distributed globally. 

A promise kept

Nguyen Thi Nguyet Ha who now directs the Thanh Ha Company"” told me that, before he died, her father made her promise to maintain their business without compromising their traditional methods, no matter what. Madam Ha and her brother have kept this promise, and their mother told me that the fish sauce made these days is better than it had ever been. 

Ha joked with me that if I had met her father more than forty years ago, he would have taught me the secrets of their sweet-smelling sauce and I would never have been visited by the police. 

A strong friendship between an American veteran and a Vietcong family has been established partly due to our common love of fish sauce.

Ha grew up inside a factory surrounded by fermenting fish; her school friends teased her relentlessly, claiming that her white school uniform (Vietnamese ao dai) always smelled of fish sauce.

She still talks very passionately and proudly about her family business. Her eyes shine with the light of a strong belief: that she will keep her promise.

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