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The blood of Vietnamese Cuisine July 4, 2007

Posted by adrien in Ingredients, Vietnamese Cuisine.
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Even though used throughout Southeast Asia (nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, ngan byar yay in Myanmar or Tuc Trei in Kampuchea (Cambodia), it is in Vietnamese Cuisine that fish sauce is omnipresent.
I remember after spending a year studying in Notre Dame de Garaison (a beautiful 16th century monastery in the Pyrenees) without none Vietnamese food, the first night I got back to Paris, what I was fancied for was just a bowl of plain rice with some nuoc mam. The taste and flavor of nuoc mam reflect so well the soul of Vietnam: the saltiness of tears (caused by centuries of wars, civil wars and those against invaders); of the sweat of slavery under a thousand years of Chinese domination and a century of French colonization; of the South Chinese Sea water that drunk thousands of boat peoples in their thirst of liberty, the fishy smell of the 3500 km of coastline, of infinite numbers of fishing ports and the gigantic Mekong Delta, and finally the sweetness bitter tainted of hope and nostalgia.

But let’s get back to the main purpose of fish sauce as a cooking ingredient: it is made with salt and anchovy, fermented and aged in wooden barrels. In my opinion, the Vietnamese nuoc mam is better elaborated and therefore has a subtler flavor than its Southeast Asian alter egos. The Thai nam pla (the most used in US Thai Restaurants is Tiparos but the Squid brand or Trang cha are far better) is saltier, less sweet and less strong in taste but the flavor is also less complex, meanwhile the Filipino patis (the most famous is Rufina Patis) is even saltier and heavier.
While Vietnamese constitutes the first Southeast Asian population in the United States, Thai fish sauce is the most sold. This might be explained by the American trade embargo on Vietnam (1978 –1994), which allowed Thai fish sauce exporters to position comfortably on the northern american market and even European market (Vietnam was the only exporter of nuoc mam to Europe since the 19th century but has stopped its exportation with the arrival of the communists in 1975 and let the door opened to Thai fish sauce). However, it was harder for them to reach the quality of Vietnamese nuoc mam. (Actually, to respond to the quality expectations of the market – most of fish sauce buyers are Vietnamese- tons of Vietnamese nuoc mam was imported in Thailand, mixed with Thai fish sauce and re-export to the US under Thai Brands as a Thai product). Even though today, lots of vietnamese fish sauces are thought Thai products. The best example is from importfoods.com, a commercial site hailed by the New York times and Martha Stewart Living, which said about Viet Huong (means in vietnamese Flavor of Vietnam) Three Crabs: “is a product of Thailand and processed in Hong Kong”…
Without any chauvinism, I strongly recommend you Vietnamese fish sauce, especially the ones which come from Phu Quoc (the largest island of Vietnam which houses more than a hundreds nuoc mam producers, where high rate of protein anchovy can be found in abundance in the southwestern water of the island in their season from August to December) or Phan Thiet, and it is primordial that you can read the mention of nhi and Thuong hang on the label. “Nhi” means first extraction and “Thuong hang “ highest quality. Nhi is for Nuoc mam what extra virgin is for olive oil: first extraction, better quality and more expensive. I remember a visit of a fish sauce factory in Rach Gia when I was a kid. We assisted to the first attraction and I was amazed and disgusted how the first extraction was pungent and thick. Actually, the fish sauce we found in the bottles is already diluted at 80%.
Most nuoc mam is made with anchovy (some are made with mackerels and are more expensive), but some producers in Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc combine different type of fish just a wine producer combines cepages to get better flavors. Since 2002, Phu Quoc’s nuoc mam is regconized as “Apellation d’Origine Controle” products in France and Europe (just as wines, Champagne and Cognac).
In Bai Sri, we use mainly Viet Huong’s The Three Crabs brand which is for me the best. It has a good consistency in quality: subtle flavors, delicate aroma and translucid amber color. We only use Tiparos nam pla for Pad Thai.

More than the blood of Vietnamese Cuisine, nuoc mam truly connects his lost sons to their homeland, and Vietnam to the world.

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