Times Standard (Eureka)


Hayward’s Red Boat Fish Sauce chef on her must-have umami ingredient

- By Jessica Yadegaran

As a young child growing up in Orange County, Vietnam-born Diep Tran shopped with her grandparen­ts in the markets of Little Saigon. And every weekend, her elders would inevitably stand and stare, disappoint­edly, at the walls of condiments, shaking their heads and mumbling that nothing available here was even close to the dish-transformi­ng fish sauces back home.

That changed in 2011, when a determined Pleasanton ex-Apple engineer launched Red Boat Fish Sauce. Instantly embraced by culinary titans like David Chang and Andrea Nguyen, Cuong Pham’s sauce was the first premium, sustainabl­y sourced fish sauce made using a centuries-old fermentati­on process and only two ingredient­s: black anchovies and salt from the island of Phú Quoc in Vietnam. The sauce is produced and packaged at Red Boat’s factory in Hayward.

Tran, a Los Angeles chef, was among the earliest adopters. At the time, she was running Good Girl Dinette, her popular Vietnamese eatery in Highland Park. After one taste, she purchased multiple cases of the amber, intensely fragrant “first-press” sauce and recalibrat­ed all of her recipes — pho, curry, porridge and more — to this one ingredient.

“I was evangelica­l about it,” recalls Tran, now the R&D chef for Red Boat. “I touched my grandmothe­r’s Catholic medallion that I wear and said, ‘Props to you, grandma. I get you now.’ ”

Pham himself drove those cases down to L.A. and quickly developed a friendship with Tran. Now, together with Tran’s girlfriend, the writer Tien Nguyen (“L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food” with chef Roy Choi), they have released “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce” (Harvest, $25).

The book chronicles Pham’s many journeys: His yearlong journey from Vietnam to America following the war and later, his journeys back to his home country, beginning in 2006, to re-create the flavors missing in his favorite childhood dishes. The book delves into the art of making fish sauce, from the evaporatio­n ponds where the salt is harvested to the barrel house on Phú Quoc, known as the Champagne of fish sauce for its ideal fermenting environmen­t. There, wild anchovies are caught, immediatel­y salted and fermented for more than a year.

The cookbook includes 100-plus recipes from Pham’s childhood, his current weeknight family table, newly developed Red Boat recipes and contributi­ons from some of the many chefs who are obsessed with the sauce, like San Francisco’s Stuart Brioza (The Progress, State Bird Provisions) and Santa Monica’s Bryant Ng (Cassia). Tran, who developed the recipes, shares the secrets to superior bánh mì and thit kho tiêu (braised black pepper pork) and how fish sauce can transform roast chicken, burgers and marinara, and is the perfect substitute for hard cheese in pesto.

In writing the cookbook, it was important to Tran to showcase both Vietnamese and American dishes. And not just savory appetizers, salads and braises, but breakfast staples, like her Good Girl Dinette cured bacon, desserts and drinks, too.

“We wanted to reflect that people, no matter what their ethnicity, do not just cook their own food,” she says. “We’re putting fish sauce in everything.”

Tran was tasked with re-creating Pham’s mother’s recipes. She died in 2012, a year after she watched her son succeed in his quest to bring premium fish sauce to America. And her recipe notebooks — two of the four found their way to the States after the war — are Pham family treasures.

“It was fun for me,” Tran says. “Her script looked a lot like my grandma’s. Neat and upright. Some of her recipes were detailed. Others were very general. It was all a mnemonic device for her.”

Tran updated Mom’s Gà Quay (roast chicken), traditiona­lly cooked on the stove, with an overnight marinated version that is butterflie­d and cooked in the oven. But Tran’s tribute to bún kèn, a coconut fish noodle soup found in Phú Quoc, appears untouched. Its complex flavors are achieved by that thoughtful layering of components and textures that makes Vietnamese cuisine so magical.

Most recently, Tran and Pham have worked with local farms on Phú Quoc to bring other products to market, including Red Boat palm sugar, black peppercorn­s and chef salts. For Tran, however, traveling to Phú Quoc — her first time back in Vietnam since she was 6 — has been one of the most rewarding experience­s of this culinary journey.

“Fish sauce is something that most consumers experience just as an end product, so to stand with Cuong at the banks of the Red Boat barrel house was an absolutely unforgetta­ble experience,” she says. “What struck me the most was watching his fishing boats return to the loading dock and seeing the crew transfer, by hand, a literal boatful of salted anchovies to barrels where they will ferment for 12 months before becoming the amber fish sauce that we will eventually see on supermarke­t shelves.”

And that will make her grandparen­ts smile with approval.

 ?? PHOTOS BY ORIANA KOREN ?? Red Boat Fish Sauce is a Hayward-based family business founded by Cuong Pham, center. He runs it with his kids, Kevin, Tracy and Tiffany.
PHOTOS BY ORIANA KOREN Red Boat Fish Sauce is a Hayward-based family business founded by Cuong Pham, center. He runs it with his kids, Kevin, Tracy and Tiffany.
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