|The Straits Times (Singapore)
January 5, 2010 Tuesday Something fishy is going on
Visiting a fish sauce factory in Vietnam is like going on a wine-tasting tour of a vineyard, only a more pungent experience
When cruising through Normandy in France, you might stop to pick up a few rounds of Camembert. While in Spain, you would want to sample some of the finest Iberian acorn ham as you stand in a forest of suspended hams at a Seville charcuter?a.
In Vietnam, the speciality is fish sauce and I was keen to sample some of this highly prized tincture in its purest form.
My quest took me to Phan Thiet, a sunny beach town located 200km east of southern economic hub Ho Chi Minh City. In recent years, this picturesque sequence of sandy bays has been popularised 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 Vietnam’s rich and varied cuisine, and is a fixture at almost every Vietnamese meal. Nuoc mam, or fish sauce, can be used at any stage of the cooking process: as a marinade for meat, a stock base, added for flavour or diluted to create a light dipping sauce.
It is one of Vietnam’s proudest culinary traditions and, like a fine wine or mature cheese, quality ranges from simple working kitchen standard to high-end connoisseur specialities.
The Sao Vang Dat Viet (Vietnam’s Golden Star) is awarded to the creme de la creme and competition is fierce. There are around 600 nuoc mam factories of different sizes in Binh Thuan province, producing a combined total of 36 million litres a year.
The provincial capital Phan Thiet and nearby town of Muine are recognised as the country’s leading sources of fish sauce, and an excursion to the local factories is an interesting, albeit overwhelming, sensory experience.
At Phan Thiet’s Fish Sauce Joint Stock Company (Fisaco), the biggest operation of all which produces 16 million litres of nuoc mam every year under four brand names, curious gastronomes are offered a somewhat smellier take on a wine-tasting tour: a guided stroll around the compound to see the process in all its olfactory foulness as well as the opportunity to sample some of the finished products.
The tours, which are free, are conducted from Mondays to Fridays, from 9am to 5pm.
‘Anchovies or salmon are best but you can use pretty much any fish. We collect ours from the port or market as soon as the fishermen dock every morning,’ explained my tour guide as we meandered between the jars and barrels.
‘The fast option is to put fish into 30-tonne wooden tanks called leu at a fish to salt ratio of 10 to four, or three to one,’ he continued. ‘We don’t wash the fish first – they have already been washed by the sea – and the run-off (the salt and water mixture that runs through the layers of fish and sinks to the bottom) 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 high-grade sauce has been decanted from the festering cocktail, manufacturers will add more salt and water to produce another 60 litres of low-grade product. Like with olive oil, the quality of the first collection is the best. Rich, dark and pungently aromatic, this black gold earns the makers around 40,000 dong (S $3) a litre.
‘The other, more traditional method is to layer fish sauce and salt in jars under the sun and wait for three months while natural hydrolysis occurs,’ said the tour guide.
This low-tech method has been used by fishing families all over Binh Thuan province for generations. Most of the families do not offer tours as a matter of course, but it seems everyone knows someone with a boutique outfit. Just mentioning my interest in trying the local speciality at a beachfront cafe was enough to secure an invite to one of the staff’s uncle’s nuoc mam shop.
A 15-minute motorbike ride later, I found myself in a lean-to shack fronting a family-owned yard along Muine beach’s main stretch.
Under the shade of a rickety corrugated iron roof fringed by coconut trees, a girl dressed in pink floral pyjamas and, incongruously, white heavy-duty rubber boots squatted over a collection of dish bowls, cutting the dorsal fins of a dead, bleached-pink perch.
Catching sight of us, she waved cheerily and gestured towards the yard out back, where immense clay jars arranged roughly in three haphazard rows bore the full brunt of the scorching midday sun, some topped with bamboo lids, some capped with recycled rubber tyres, and all elevated from the sandy ground on chunks of house brick.
In Muine, statistically Vietnam’s most sunny locale, the midday sun is unforgiving. But here in the yard the air seemed to shimmer more from the rank stench than the tropical heat. In each of the still, solemn brown bellies a wickedly mephitic mix was silently festering away – a salty cocktail of rotting, fermenting fish that could singe nose hair at 100 paces.
‘It’s very important to keep the temperature constantly high – a higher temperature means better fish sauce,’ explained my waitress-cum-tour guide Nhu from beneath her newspaper sun visor.
‘After a few months, you draw the nuoc mam off and filter it. Each of these jars has a capacity of 400 litres and the first tapping will give 100 litres of premium nuoc nam.’
In the past, local producers would give bus drivers ferrying tourists between Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City a tip to stop at their factory shop. Militant schedules imposed by tour companies have meant this practice has stopped completely. Besides, let’s face it, when you are happily snoozing away the 10-hour jaunt between the two destinations, an opportunity to experience one of the most offensive smells on the planet is not much of an incentive to get up.
Now it is only Fisaco that offers a taste tour.
Standing among wooden barrels surrounded by an assortment of bottles, I felt like I was attending a wine tasting at a vineyard – apart from the smell, of course.
The Vietnamese even package and promote their brands just like a fine wine. ‘Purity and well-balanced flavour’, proclaimed the Fisaco brand label. The nose was not unpleasant: Rich, acrid, meaty, it was reminiscent of Bovril and Worcester sauce.
On the palate, the caramel liquid was salty, with well-rounded salmon tones that developed quickly on the tongue. When used as a dip, marinade or sauce base, nuoc mam is commonly mixed with lime juice, water and sugar.
But even undiluted I found it flavourful and extremely appetising. I bought three bottles (15,000 to 40,000 dong a bottle) and then went in search of some of Phan Thiet’s more pleasurable aromas at the Princess d’Annam resort, Vietnam’s first all-villa boutique luxury resort 35km south of the Fisaco factory.
Gemma Price is a freelance writer based in Ho Chi Minh City.