Prized by chefs and home cooks around the world for their funky, briny flavor and extraordinary versatility, anchovies don’t just adorn pizzas, salads, and sandwiches—they make their way into distinctive sauces, dressings, and dips, where they lend a meaty delectable backbone to, well, anything you want. Fish sauce, made in countless seaside villages in Vietnam, and instantly recognized by its fishy smell and salty flavor, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years or so. To take away fish sauce nước mắm from the Vietnamese is like draining blood from a living soul, deflating a floating helium balloon or driving a nail into a tire. Slowly but surely, all life would gradually cease. Extreme as this may sound, this is how vital this golden elixir is to Vietnamese cuisine.
As olive oil is to the Italians, soy sauce to the Japanese, and Worcestershire to the British, fish sauce is to the Vietnamese. It’s a pure, pungent nectar sent from the fermented fish gods to grace our breaths and Vietnamese inspired dishes.
The earliest recorded words on fish sauce date back to Romans times where the condiment was known as garum. Italian archaeologists have recently discovered that garum was mentioned in Roman literature all the way back to the 4th Century BC. One can only guess at the mysterious recipes that were served up to Emperors Nero or Tiberius using this golden elixir. Used in Thailand as nam pla and Myanmar as ngan bya yay, as well as Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines under other local names and variations, one thing is certain, regardless of preference: fish sauce plays a crucial role in flavoring food in Southeast Asia. An interesting characteristic of fish sauce is that it loses its fishy, pungent odour once other ingredients are added to it. Together with garlic and chilli, it is often used as a dipping sauce.
Whether you love it or hate it, it is a part of everyday life here in Vietnam. The house where nuoc mam (fish sauce) is made is called nha thung (house of barrels) because of the large wooden barrels in which the sauce is prepared. Some of these tubs are so big they can hold hundreds of kilos of fish. The barrels are made from several types of wood whose trunks range in diameter from 60 to 100 centimeters. The ropes to lash these monsters together are made from bamboo. Narrow strips, two to three centimeters wide, are left in a river for up to three months to soften, and are then plaited into quite a thick rope to securely bind the planks together.
In recent times, these barrels have been replaced with cement tanks to shorten the fermentation process, which is around 9 months in the time-honored timber vats.
Nuoc mam is still made using the traditional method of mostly manual work without the addition of any additives, and faithfully following recipes handed down throughout generations. The secret lies of course, in the choice of sea salt and the quality of the fish. Just one bad fish can spoil a batch. Nha Trang is a literal treasure trove for anchovy fish, and nước mắm, made from fish caught in this area taste very different from other regions in Vietnam, such as Phu Quoc, which is another well-known location for the production of fish sauce. March is the anchovy fishing season in Nha Trang. The small fish and salt are the only materials needed to make what is considered by many the best fish sauce in the central region of Vietnam.
Sea salt from the Hon Khoi Salt Fields near Doc Let Beach, around 50 km to the north of Nha Trang, is the favoured natural element to add to the freshly caught anchovies. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit the fields yet, it is a must do. These hard working woman start their day at 4am and finish around 9am to avoid, as much as possible, the extremely harsh conditions. Pearly white hectares of glaring fields of salt, mounds of nature’s condiment, being manually harvested by non-la (conical hat) clad woman, groaning under the burden of bamboo yokes, laden with heavy wicker baskets, full of the white granules is a sight to behold. The essential ingredients of 4 parts salt and 1 part anchovies remain fairly constant, and no, they don’t just toss the lot in the barrel, there is a structured layering process. One where you blanket the floor of the tub with a layer of salt, then fish and so on, finishing off with the salt (a little like making lasagna), a weighted bamboo mat sits on top to block the fish floating up, then let it ferment for around nine months.
Wine connoisseurs wax lyrical about the characteristics of certain wines, coffee aficionados spout their favourite blend, and the humble fish sauce, cold pressed and pure liquid gold, deserves no less accolades.
Look for fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown hue, like the color of a good whisky or sherry, without any sediments. Good fish sauce also has a pleasing aroma of the ocean, not an overwhelming smelly fishiness, and should not be overly salty. The best quality fish sauce has a honey color.
One of the very basic staples of fish sauce is the dipping sauce that can be used as a dip for spring rolls, as a dressing for noodles and rice or as a marinade for grilled meat. It’s like magic when you take fish sauce, mix it with a little lime, garlic and chili. Fish sauce, in its pure form, then becomes a little softer, subdued and more manageable on the palette. It then becomes the dip that Vietnamese call, nước chấm.
If you are looking for the essence of Vietnam, you can’t go past this iconic product. Rich in traditions, and centuries old, it’s great to splash on your favorite meal back home, and I just know you will smile at your beautiful memories of Vietnam when the taste buds sense this golden elixir.