One of the best fun when I’m taking my friends and clients all over the world to do the street food tour is to make them try “nuoc mam”- Vietnamese fish sauce. At first no one can stand the strong smell of the pure fish sauce. But after this fish sauce has been modified and mixed to make dipping sauce, everyone falls in love with it. In this post I’m going to share with you about Vietnamese fish sauce- the most important ingredient for any Vietnamese dish.
Hang jars of fish and salt mixture out in the sun- traditional way
Vietnamese fish sauce "nuoc mam"- the essence of Vietnamese food culture
Nuoc mam- Vietnamese fish sauce has been used by Vietnamese people since forever. In every single meal you’ll see bowls of fish sauce served with the food. Vietnamese even say no matter how luxurious or simple the meal is, it will become tasteless without some good fish sauce. It is because Vietnamese fish sauce has become part of Vietnam culture, something we cannot live without.
So what is nuoc mam? Technically nuoc mam is made from fish and salt. Fresh fishes are put into a huge jar together with sea salt. One layer of fish is added with one layer of salt. That jar when filled up will be close tightly and put outside so sunshine and rain will fall on it. It takes that mixture at least one year to be pureed naturally. It is the good natural bacteria that decays the fish and salt that prevents everything from rotting. The final result is a shiny dark brown liquid with very strong smell. This liquid contains good quantity of protein minerals. Also it has a significantly strong smell that is not very comfortable for those who never know Vietnamese fish sauce before. That is why my clients are always impressed by how strong it is when first learn about it.
Nowadays nuoc mam is made in big quantity in these wooden jars
Fish sauce is well used all over Vietnam. I don’t know any good Vietnamese chefs who never use fish sauce in their food. And from family meal to the most expensive restaurant there is the appearance of Vietnamese fish sauce. In a normal family meal there must be a bowl of fish sauce to share between everyone. But the fish sauce used here is not the pure one, which is very salty with strong smell. Housewives will mix the fish sauce with other ingredient like lemon, fresh chili, garlic, pepper…depending on what kind of food served. For example fish sauce mixed with sugar, ginger and lime for boiled ducks, steamed clams or snails. Fish sauce with a boiled egg mixed is for steamed vegetables. Sweet and sour fish sauce for spring rolls and the so. Each and every dish requires a different mixture in which fish sauce is the main star.
Vietnamese fish sauce is considered to be an indispensable thing all over Vietnam. But depends on where you go in the country the taste of nuoc mam is different. In the southern part of Vietnam fish sauce is normally mixed in a strong, sweet and spicy style. When you go to the center of Vietnam they tend to use pure fish sauce for dipping without mixing anything in it. Meanwhile in North Vietnam like Hanoi and the surroundings fish sauce is found being mixed with many different inputs. Hanoi is well known for its varieties of dipping sauce made out of fish sauce. With a richness of protein, fish sauce is sometimes a main dish in poor remote areas in Vietnam. In some places I go, people eat steamed rice with fish sauce only. For us city people doesn’t sound of enough protein. But I’ve seen healthy children and strong men and women there. When I go to some fishing village in Halong bay I see fishermen drink a big bowl of fish sauce to keep warm before they jump into the see. It is believed to give them protein and extra energy for such an extreme activity.
Each dish requires a different style of dipping based on pure fish sauce
In the western world during meal everyone has their own portion, even the dipping sauce. And when they travel Vietnam it is a big surprise for them to see Vietnamese share one bowl of dipping sauce among everyone. Sometimes it is a culture sock if one doesn’t not know about oriental culture. But it is so common for Vietnamese to share everything including the nuoc mam. I have written about Vietnamese meal and how they share dishes among the family. You can read it here. For Vietnamese people sharing the bowl of dipping fish sauce is a sign of mutuality, devotion and trust. From young ages children are taught how to share food and fish sauce during meal. This is an important lesson every child has to learn. As sharing the fish sauce will be with them for the rest of their Vietnamese life. I remember when I was a little boy my grandfather showed me how to do it properly when dipping food into the shared bowl of nuoc mam. I had to make sure only the food that came into the bowl not the chopsticks. And I had to be careful with it so fish sauce didn’t drop everywhere on the table. And when there were guests to eat with the family my grandfather taught me to turn the chopsticks upside down when dipping food to make it politely and hygienically.
Pure fish sauce is believed to have to best protein and taste but a bit strong smell
Since Vietnam is now opened to the world, travelers from all over the world come to Vietnam for exotic experiences as well as chances for business. Vietnamese food hence becomes one of the best factors to charm foreigners. And Vietnamese fish sauce is the pioneer to impress. I’ve seen travelers, business people and even food experts greatly enjoying Vietnamese food spiced with Vietnamese fish sauce. Now in the narrow streets of Hanoi or Saigon is it not so difficult to find tourists tucking in delicious Vietnamese food in which fish sauce adds special flavor. And when they leave Vietnam I’m sure the impression of Vietnamese fish sauce will stay with them for a long time. Some of my clients even want to take fish sauce back home from Vietnam. But since Vietnam Airlines is still quite strict on carrying liquid to their airplanes this is not recommended. I believe now Vietnamese fish sauce is available in some Asian markets and supermarkets in America, Europe and other regions of the world. I still see overseas Vietnamese trying to sneak fish sauce in their luggage when they come back from Vietnam. As like we always say: “there is nothing better than mother’s home made fish sauce”.
When I was a boy and Vietnam was still very poor, we did have a lot of good food to eat. But fish sauce was always available. Preparing for Tet- Vietnamese Lunar New Year my mother usually saved money to buy the top grade fish sauce. That number 1 fish sauce was the first drops coming out of the fish jars which is believed to contain the best essence of the jar. This fish sauce was only for the most important events of the family like the New Year meals and festivals during the year. For daily use she bought the second or third grade which was cheap enough. And for the little boy me there was such a happiness when coming back home from school with an empty stomach I could find some left over rice to eat with fish sauce. The delicacy my father made was garlic, fresh chili in whole soaked in fish sauce and vinegar. He could eat that every meal. What a time to remember. Such poor but full of laughs and happiness.
Vietnamese fish sauce is our pride of Vietnamese cooking culture. Come to Vietnam and let us impress you with the special food that you can find nowhere in the world.
By Pham Tuyen