Nuoc mam, the taste of Vietnam

Every nation has tastes and flavours that typify its cuisine. Just as the unmistakeable signature of Chinese food is soy sauce, Vietnamese cuisine has become famous for its use of nuoc mam, a local staple that features in every meal from the humblest snack to the most sumptuous banquet.

Fish sauce is used to increase the spiciness and create the distinctive flavour of many Vietnamese dishes. It is made of salt-water fish, ranges in colour from dark yellow to deep red or brown, smells almost offensively strong and has a strong, salty taste.

To make nuoc mam, the Vietnamese cover fish with salt and soak them in large wooden vats for long periods before tapping the vats to draw off the magic liquid. Although it is a simple process, the Vietnamese take their fish sauce very seriously and different varieties and vintages are compared with the same interest that Westerners pay to fine wines.

How to use fish sauce to its best effect is the subject of some debate, particularly amongst foreigners, who are often initially repelled by the strength and odour of the concoction.

For Sofitel Metropole’s French chef, Didier Corlou, however, nuoc mam has become a passion, so much so that the hotel recently hosted its first symposium on fish sauce, attended by local experts, gourmands and representatives of the European Commission.

“I think understanding fish sauce is the first step towards understanding the culinary art and culture of Vietnam. After becoming familiar with it for nearly twelve years, I now use fish sauce in many of my meals. It has gradually become my passion and my habit,” Corlou explains.

Fish sauce is primarily made from species such as mackerel, butterfish and long-jawed anchovy. After the fish are soaked for between six months and one year, they produce the first distillation of fish sauce, which contains 25-40 per cent protein. This process is comparable with the first pressing of olive oil production, which produces the most highly-valued oil.

The first distillation of fish-sauce is dark in colour and is often used as a condiment to be sprinkled on meals or mixed with vegetable oil and vinegar, and just a few drops of fish sauce is enough to bring out extra flavour in ingredients like mushrooms and seafood.

The second and third distillations of fish-sauce contain about 25 per cent protein and are used to marinate meat or add to meals. The lowest-quality sauces are those of the fourth distillation, which contain much greater levels of salt than the earlier products.
“Fish sauce is similar to wine in that people can distinguish typical characteristics such as fruity, strong or charming flavours,” Corlou says.

Many regions of Vietnam specialise in producing fish sauce, including Phu Quoc Island, Phan Thiet, Nha Trang, Cat Hai Island, Quy Nhon and Phu Yen. Cat Hai especially, has long been famed for turning out the highest-quality fish sauce in northern Vietnam.
Didier Corlou has travelled to many coastal regions of Vietnam, where he has met fish-sauce makers who take great pride in their work.

He learnt the secrets of the fish sauce trade on Tam Hai Island, 150 kilometres from Danang. Here a local family taught him how to make flavoursome, high-quality sauce and the chef says he will always keep a bottle of sauce from the family as a souvenir.

After studying the different varieties of sauce produced by different methods in different regions, from the gently-flavoured variety of Nha Trang to the browny-black Phu Quoc nuoc mam, Corlou has concluded that the most important factors are that the sauce be made in the traditional way, in a wooden vat covered by a mosquito net and using only fish and salt. This differs in many ways from how the sauce is produced in Thailand, where sugar is added, or China, where soy beans are a major ingredient.

Both a key source of flavour and a rich source of protein, Vietnamese fish sauce has long been the nation’s pride. Aside from its use in flavouring Vietnamese cuisine, it is also known to help prevent infestation by parasitical worms and to help produce a bright, white smile.

It might be a Vietnamese tradition, but Corlou is soon planning to give nuoc mam a French touch, producing the sauce himself at the Metropole using long-jawed anchovy and cellaring it to ensure the famous hotel is never short of a taste of Vietnam.

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