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Pungent pleasure: fish sauce secrets in Vietnam

In Vietnam: Watching (and smelling) the brewing of a favorite fish sauce, nuoc mam.

By Gemma PriceContributor / April 21, 2010

Water taxis await customers in Phan Thiet, a beach town that attracts tourists, but is also known as the region's major source of fish sauce.

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Phan Thiet, Vietnam

In Normandy, a traveler might stop to pick up a few rounds of Camembert. In Spain, you can nibble on delicious Iberian acorn ham while standing in a forest of suspended hams at a Seville charcuterie. In Vietnam, the specialty is nuoc mam, and I was keen to sample some of this highly prized fish sauce in its purest form.

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My quest took me to Phan Thiet, a beach town located about 125 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. In recent years, this picturesque area has been popularized as one of Asia’s top kite-surfing destinations. But the region’s main industry – fishing and the manufacture of fish sauce – is still going strong.

The distinct – and stinky – brown liquid forms the foundation of the country’s rich and varied cuisine and is a fixture at almost every meal. Nuoc mam can be used at any stage of the cooking process – as a marinade for meat or a stock base and it can be added directly to a dish for flavor or diluted to create a light dipping sauce. It’s one of Vietnam’s proudest culinary traditions.

There are about 600 nuoc mam factories of varying sizes in Binh Thuan Province, which produce a combined total of 9-1/2 million gallons of the pungent sauce a year. Phan Thiet and the nearby town of Mui Ne are considered leading sources, and an excursion to one of the local factories is an interesting, albeit overwhelming, sensory experience.

At Phan Thiet’s Fish Sauce Joint Stock Co. (FISACO), which produces more than 4 million gallons of nuoc mam a year under four brand names, curious gastronomes are offered a tour to see the process and sample some of the end products.

As we stood among wooden barrels surrounded by an assortment of bottles, the aroma was not unpleasant: rich, acrid, and meaty, reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce and Bovril, the British meat extract. The caramel-colored liquid tasted salty and a bit like salmon. When used as dip, marinade, or sauce base, nuoc mam is commonly mixed with lime juice, water, and sugar.

“Anchovies or salmon are best, but you can use pretty much any fish [in making the sauce],” explained the tour guide. “We collect ours from the port or market as soon as the fishermen dock every morning. The fast option is to put fish into cylindrical 30-ton-capacity wooden tanks at a ratio of 10 [parts] fish to 4 [parts] salt, or 3 [parts] fish to 1 [of] salt,” he continued. “Runoff from the fish is removed through a hole in the bottom of the tank, and put through the tank again and again. Within five days, we can take the first fish sauce.”

Once the first sauce has been decanted, manufacturers will add more salt and water to produce another 16 gallons of a lower-grade product.

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