Fam­ily-pro­duced Fish Sauce in Phú Quoc, Viet­nam

SAVEUR - - Changing Tides - BY DAN Q. DAO

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.

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