Family-produced Fish Sauce in Phú Quoc, Vietnam
One of nearly 800,000 refugees who settled in America following the Vietnam War, Cuong Pham was shocked and dismayed to find that Vietnamese fish sauce, or nuoc mam, the funky, fermented mother sauce of his homeland, was nowhere to be found. Many Vietnamese families traditionally made their own, salting and fermenting wild-caught black anchovies. Pham, who arrived in California in 1979, traces his earliest memories of the stuff to the island of Phú Quoc, where his uncle once owned a fish sauce factory. The island is known for the anchovies that thrive in its surrounding waters and for the nuoc mam made in its many small villages.
When Pham returned to Phú Quoc in 2005 to visit a friend’s fish sauce operation, he smuggled a bottle back to the U.S. for his mother, who, upon tasting it, began to weep with joy. Nobody at the time was exporting a high-quality Vietnamese product like this to America, and Pham saw an opportunity. In 2006, he did what any dutiful son would do. He left his lucrative Silicon Valley job to buy his friend’s barrel house and launch what would ultimately become the most widely known fish sauce brand in America: Red Boat.
Most commercial producers in Vietnam use MSG and other additives to boost the flavor of diluted second or third pressings, or purchase bycatch to increase their yields. Additionally, some foreign businessmen have been caught buying bulk anchovies from other regions and passing them off as being from Phú Quoc, which received a Protected Designation of Origin status in 2012. Pham, however, sought to honor the methods of the small families, but on a scale that would make the product available to a global audience. The fishermen who operate his company’s crimson boats salt the haul on board, then transfer it immediately to barrels to ferment. Only the first presses are tapped for sauce and blended for bottling.
“What inspires me is getting Phú Quoc back on the map,” says Pham, who sees his work at Red Boat as both a return to tradition and a means of giving Vietnamese foodways a more prominent position on the global stage. But for all the acclaim that Pham has received, the greatest success has been giving his mother and other Vietnamese expats back the pungent, tangy taste of their youth.
“Nobody at the time was exporting high-quality Vietnamese fish sauce like this to America.”
As it ages, fish sauce takes on a dark, caramelbrown color; this young tasting sample was taken from Red Boat’s vermilion barrels.