The story of the world’s best fish sauce begins, like so many others, with a son who just wanted to make his mother happy. Cuong Pham and his parents came to the United States from Saigon as refugees in 1979. They settled in northern California, where Cuong eventually became an engineer, spending 16 years with Apple. His mother, however, could never find the fish sauce (nuoc mam in Vietnamese) she remembered from Vietnam. Cuong’s family owned a fish-sauce factory; his uncle would bring his mother 20-litre cans of specially selected, just-for-family nuoc mam. In America she had to settle for commercial fish sauce, often the saltier Thai variety – designed, in the words of Andrea Nguyen, a cookbook author and proprietor of the indispensable Viet World Kitchen website, “for the lusty highs and lows of Thai food, [not] the rolling hills and valleys of Viet food”). So Cuong did what any son would do: he started his own fish-sauce company.
Fish sauce – the liquid produced from anchovies salted and left to ferment in the heat for months – has long repelled most Western palates. That is starting to change. It adds a savoury depth to soups and stocks that salt alone cannot provide. If soy sauce is a single trumpet played at full blast, fish sauce is a dozen bowed double-basses; and Cuong’s fish sauce is without parallel. And while he may have made it for expats like his mother, chefs across the Pacific and in Europe have grown to love it.
In the centre of Duong Dong, the biggest town on the southern Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, you can smell Cuong’s warehouse long before you see it. A sharp, tangy funk suggested itself as the motorbike I was riding first turned off the main road. It grew stronger on the dirt driveway, stronger still closer to the facility. When Cuong opened the door to his warehouse – its steep corrugated-tin roof positioned to trap the heat – the scent became almost corporeal. In the late-afternoon heat it felt like being gently shoved in the face with a warm, fishy pillow. Inside the warehouse are 85 huge wooden barrels, open at the top. Inside the barrels is the lifeblood of South-East Asia.
Each barrel holds 12 tonnes of black anchovies pulled from the Gulf of Thailand, packed in with aged sea salt harvested off the southern Vietnamese coast. The salt reacts with an enzyme in the anchovies’ guts, and over the course of a year the fish break down. Eventually one of Cuong’s workers will tap the bottom of the barrel and pour into bottles – or, for anyone lucky enough to visit the factory, small tasting bowls – the deep-amber-coloured nuoc mam.
It forms the chief protein source for millions, and is as central to the diverse cuisines of mainland South-East Asia as olive oil is to southern Italian and Levantine food. It goes by different names: nam pla in Thailand, tuk trey in Cambodia and patis in the Philippines. A similar condiment called garum featured in ancient Roman cuisine, and indeed south-west Italy still produces small amounts of colatura di alici, an anchovy liquid similar to nuoc mam. In other parts of South-East Asia, notably Myanmar and Cambodia, people eat fermented-fish pastes, which tend to be more assertive – often used as a central ingredient rather than a flavouring. These products wring value from abundant, tiny fish too small to eat on their own; like pickling, fish sauces preserve a bountiful harvest’s nutrition.
Fish sauce can repel first-timers: it often has an intensely fishy odour, especially in the cheaper varieties, with a rubbishy edge. But its flavour rounds and mellows with cooking. Eventually it becomes addictive, essential: I’m about as Vietnamese as a bagel, and I can’t imagine my kitchen without it. You can build a marinade for nearly any grilled thing – meat, fish or vegetable – around its umami sturdiness. Greens stir-fried with garlic, nuoc mam and a squeeze of lime or splash of white wine make a happy light lunch, served over steamed rice. Mix it with lime juice, sugar, water and perhaps some sliced chillies or chopped garlic, and it becomes nuoc cham, a dip that makes everything taste better (it pairs especially, if unconventionally, well with soft, watery fruits such as pineapple and strawberry).
In Vietnam, Phu Quoc is as renowned for its fish sauce as Bordeaux is for its wines, though these days most producers sell their sauce to bulk preparers in the mainland. They keep some for themselves, of course – usually the nuoc mam nhi, the first press from a barrel, which is what Cuong sells commercially (and what his uncle brought his mother). “People thought I was crazy” for selling it, says Cuong. “Everyone knows you’re not supposed to sell the first press. That’s supposed to be for you.” The yield is low: Cuong produces around 3,000 litres per 12-tonne barrel, meaning it takes about four kilogrammes of fish to produce a litre of nuoc mam nhi.
Of course, you pay for quality. A good nuoc mam nhi can cost up to three times what a standard bottle does (though that generally means around $9 rather than $3). But it has a markedly higher protein content, which gives it a much deeper, richer, gentler, more complex flavour than its downmarket peers. You can use it, for instance, in a Bloody Mary in place of Worcester sauce; try that with a mass-market brand and you’ll create a cocktail that tastes like tongue-kissing an alleycat. It plays nicely with other ingredients, blending into the background in salad dressings and gravies.
And perhaps most important to Cuong, it pleases his mother, and hundreds of thousands of others like her, looking for a taste of home a long way away. “It’s just the most touching thing to see an old lady limping out of an Asian market carrying a case of our sauce,” says Cuong. “They rediscover that taste – it’s a beautiful thing.”