Fish sauce. It permeates and penetrates the air, the senses, the skin, and the soul of the Vietnamese people. It ties together the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine from the northern highlands of Vietnam to the canals and tributeries of the Mekong and even accentuates the differences. Fish sauce is not just a mere condiment, but a commodity, a valuable source of pride, joy, and wealth. This short segment of a ”ca dao,” a traditional folklore musical akin to an opera, celebrates the importances of fish sauce:
“Em về Kẻ Vạn mà xem
Ruộng nương thì ít, cá tôm thì nhiều
Em đừng có làm kiêu
Đất Vạn Phần vui lắm
Chỉ ba thùng nước mắm
Trẩy một chuyến kinh kì
Đủ ăn chơi phủ phê
Đủ quần ba áo bẩy…”
It’s a story of man from a fishing village of Kẻ Vạn courting a woman, likely from the city. She’s concerned about life there and he assures her that his village may not have bountiful fields of rice and wheat, but has treasures of the sea. She should not fret, it only takes 3 barrels of fish sauce from the village to trade in the city center in order have enough money to freely spend on life’s pleasures.
The story was set in a much different time and place but highlights how important fish sauce was to the Vietnamese culture at the time. But to be completely honest, even though we use it on almost daily basis, we are bit embarrassed to admit we actually don’t know much about Vietnamese fish sauce. So we did some research. It’s widely regarded that some of the best fish sauce in the world is from Vietnam particularly from Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet. It also struck us while shopping in the fish sauce aisle (yes, an entire aisle) in the Vietnamese supermarkets of Little Saigon that not a single bottle of fish sauce among the 30-40 brands available was made in Vietnam. Many bottles carried the label of Phu Quoc or Phan Thiet, but on closer inspection are actually made elsewhere, mainly Thailand. Is it possible that all these years of eating fish sauce, we never really tasted fish sauce from Vietnam? It was a sobering thought.
Recently, however, we were delighted to receive a bottle of nuoc mam nhi, the first press and highest quality fish sauce from Red Boat Fish Sauce. One look and smell from the bottle was enough for us to know that Red Boat fish sauce was different from anything we’ve ever tasted. The first thing that struck us was a deep amber, almost reddish color which makes other fish sauce look quite brown and pale in comparison. The second thing we noticed was the more aromatic smell and taste, a more complex and satisfying flavor then previous brands we’ve tried. Finally, there’s a big 40N on the label, which turns out to be a grading system for fish sauce with N representing the nitrogen content, a measure of how much protein or anchovy is in the fish sauce—the higher the number, the more concentrated and presumably more pure. It was the first time we’ve seen the number designation on any brand of fish sauce. Comparing it with the Viet Huong Three Crab Brand, widely regarded as the “best” fish sauce for Vietnamese taste, we realized it wasn’t as pure as Red Boat fish sauce and contains added salt, sugar, and hydrolyzed wheat protein, an additive found in food and cosmetics.
When Hong’s mom was in town, we presented her with a blinded taste test, but it was fruitless as she could tell immediately by the color which fish sauce was the real nuoc mam nhi. Of course, she preferred the Red Boat fish sauce over the three crab brand. Many brands claim to be from the first press or nhi, but we doubt they are.
We decided to learn more about fish sauce and ask a few questions from the craftsman himself, Cuong Pham, the founder of Red Boat Fish Sauce. Here’s what he had to say:
RC: Tell us about your interest in fish sauce and how did you decide to go into making your own fish sauce?
CP: My mother’s cousins owned a fish sauce factory in Phu Quoc long long ago. As a child, I enjoyed very good fish sauce from that factory that was reserved for families and friends. It was pure and simple, first extraction (nuoc mam nhi), had a high protein level (40N) and no water added. After living in the States for so many years, I realized that the fish sauce here was not the same and I was never satisfied with the taste. I also could not find any fish sauce from Phu Quoc.
In 2005, I went to Phu Quoc and tried the fish sauce from my friend’s family’s factory. It was so good that I brought back a few bottles for my friends and family. They loved it too and that’s when we decided to make the same quality fish sauce available in the States.
RC: What difficulties did you come against working in VN and building building/expanding your own factory in Phu Quoc?
CP: We expanded the local factory and added more barrels, so it’s not built from the ground up. It took much longer to than we thought to get the company started because the island lacks infrastructure and the building materials had be sourced from the mainland.
RC: Why is it so hard to find fish sauce that is actually from Phu Quoc? Is it because there’s not enough Vietnamese fisherman or factories?
CP: Phu Quoc fish sauce is in very high demand because of its taste and quality. It’s an artisanal product. Despite 200 factories and plenty of fisherman in Phu Quoc, the island only produces about 14 million liters per year– not even enough for the domestic Vietnamese market. Further, the Vietnamese fish sauce industry lost its footing in the US after the war due to the trade embargo. During the trade embargo, the Thailand fish sauce companies took over the market with cheap products. Since the best fish sauce has traditionally come from Vietnam, the Thailand fish sauce companies made it look like theirs was Vietnamese. Because the Vietnamese could not compete in the US, they found other outlets for their sauce beyond the domestic market like France. With the renewed interest in gourmet and artisinal products and the knowledge that Phu Quoc sauce is the best, I saw an opportunity to reintroduce premium Vietnamese back into the US.
RC: Ca com is the type of anchovy you use. Do you buy it from the local fishermans and what have been the local response to Red Boat?
CP: Yes, ca com is sourced from local fishermen and we pay a premium to get better quality fish. Good fish sauce starts from good anchovies with the right mix of salt.
RC: How many locals do you employ at the factory?
CP: There are 6 employees but during the busy season, we get more temporary workers.
RC: What type of wood barrels do you use and how long do you ferment it for?
CP: We ferment it for at least 1 year and average about 14 months in the barrels. The type of tropical wood used for the barrels are: “boi loi”, “den den”, and “chay”. Sorry I don’t have the english/scientific names for these type of woods.
RC: Some might get a sticker shock when they see an $8 bottle of fish sauce. How do you respond to that?
CP: It’s the old adage, “you get what you pay for”. Our quality speaks for itself which is why it is endorsed and recommended by enthusiastic home cooks, celebrity chefs, top food magazine and bloggers. While people today are not used to paying $8 for fish sauce, once they taste the considerably higher quality Red Boat Fish Sauce, we religiously convert consumers. The leading brand (3 Crabs) is sold for $3 at wholesale and retail at $4 but 3 Crabs is diluted with water and additives like sugar, wheat protein, etc…. 3 Crabs i’s not pure, has a lower protein content (25N) and is second or third pressing. In fact, one of the famous chefs mentioned that he thought that we sell our product too cheap, I am serious.
We hope to be able to lower the price some when we reach economies of scale but Red Boat will always be a premium product. We don’t want to diminish our quality in any way. Our customers expect it and I wouldn’t offer anything less.
RC: What is your goal for Red Boat fish sauce?
CP: We’re the reference for the best fish sauce on the market now and we want to become the market leader.
Red Boat says that there are 5 pounds of anchovies in each bottle of 40N fish sauce. 5 POUNDS! We have no doubts as a little goes a long way here. Sure, it might be more expensive then the leading brand but you’ll probably find you will use less fish sauce to achieve the same results. Like good olive oils, you reserve the best quality for dipping and making nuoc mam cham. With the 40N bottle, we made a classic sweet, salty, and spicy dipping sauce often used to accompany sour fruits such as green mangoes. A 35N bottle is also available which is also a first press but has slightly lower concentration of anchovy.
sweet chile dipping sauce
1 tbs Redboat fish sauce
1.5 tbs sugar
1 birds eye chili
Coarsely crush the chile in your serving bowl or chop the chile in small pieces. Add the fish sauce and sugar and stir. It should taste and look like a golden molasses. Enjoy with sour green fruits such as mangoes, star fruit, or granny smith apples.
Red Boat Fish Sauce can be bought online on their website. Nam Hoa Supermarket in Garden Grove, Sigona Farmer’s Market in Redwood City, New May Wah San Francisco, Manila Oriental Market San Francisco.
Mr. Pham has generously donated 4 bottles of Red Boat Fish Sauce to four lucky readers so you can taste the quality yourself.
Leave a comment about something new you’ve learned about fish sauce. Visit Redboat Fish Sauce to learn more.
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Contest ends in 1 week on 12 am pacific time Monday May 30th. Winners will be selected randomly and notified by email. Congrats to Christopher Sorel, Kimberly H. An P. and Thao D! We hope you enjoy your bottle of Redboat Fish Sauce!
Disclosure: We were not provided anything in return for hosting this giveaway aside from the product to sample.
This is our entry to Delicious Vietnam, a monthly blogging event to celebrate Vietnamese cuisine created by Anh of Food Lovers Journey and ourselves! This month, Delicious Vietnam is hosted by Rau Om blog.