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History of Vietnamese Fish Sauce
Like wine in French and olive oil in Italy, fish sauce is the prized staple of Việt Nam, where it is used in soups and marinades. It is usually served together with food from grill seafood to spring rolls and noodles. Estimated more than 95% of Vietnamese households use fish sauce daily.
After the communist takeover in 1975, the US trade embargo was imposed on Việt Nam for 20 years. Việt Nam stopped selling fish sauce to Europe and the US after 1975, and Thailand took advantage of this opportunity to enter the market. Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết fish sauce were available in many European countries and the US for a long time. Phú Quốc a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand and Phan Thiết is a coastal port city in southeast Việt Nam and the capital of Bình Thuận Province. When Vietnamese fish sauce returned in the mid-1990s, unfortunately, the industry was dominated by Thai fish sauce which became familiar with European’s and American’s taste buds.
Fish sauce is not only familiar to the people in Southeast Asia but also for those living in other parts of the globe. Fish sauce is known as “kecap ikan” in Indonesia, “nam pla” in Thailand, “patis” in Philippines, “shottsuru” in Japan, “nước mắm” in Việt Nam, “budu” in Malaysia, “ngapi” in Myanmar, “pissala” in France, “garos” in Greece, “colombo-cure” in Pakistan and India, “yeesu” in China, and “aekjeot” in Korea.
Fish sauce or similarly fermented fish liquid goes back to ancient times. The Romans call “garum” and today a modern version fish sauce called “colatura” remains a speciality of Cetara, a village on the Amalfi coast of Italy, where local toss it with pasta, garlic and shellfish.
For a long time, the name ‘fish sauce’ has been misused by famous industrial food manufacturers for their industrial fish sauces – a mixture of fish essence, flavoring, coloring, preservatives and sweeteners – to deceive consumers into thinking that their products are made from fish and mislead the differences between industrial fish sauce and traditional one. However, the name ‘fish sauce’ can only be used for the liquid that is made from fish and salt.
Traditional fish sauce is free from preservative as salt and high amino acid content has helped to preserve the liquid naturally.
The science behind Traditional Fish Sauce Processing
A tractional fish sauce practice has attracted research food scientists of all over the world to explore the secrets behind its fermentation process.
Fish sauce is manufactured through fermentation process for 3–12 months, in which fish and salt are previously mixed thoroughly at a ratio of 1:3. After 4–6-month period, a liquid containing fish extract is obtained in fermentation tanks. That liquid became known as fish sauce.
Fermented fish products processed using the whole fish show a different characteristic compared to those prepared from headed and gutted fish.
During the fermentation process, fish tissue is gradually hydrolyzed, indicating the activity of proteolytic enzymes. The proteolytic enzymes responsible for the protein degradation are either endogenous fish enzymes coming from viscera or enzymes from microorganisms which may previously exist on or in the fish prior to the salting period. Endogenous proteolytic enzymes of fish originate from the digestive tract, internal organs, or muscle tissue.
However, it is claimed that endogenous fish enzymes are the major and perhaps sole agents responsible for digestion in the fish sauce process. Commercial enzymes are added during processing for specific purposes, such as quality improvement and process acceleration.
In general, fish sauces have a predominantly salty and umami taste, and distinctive flavour. Therefore, the fish sauce salinity, determining the salty taste; acidity, which roughly reflects the organic acids associated with the distinctive flavour and sour taste of the fish sauce; and nitrogen, representing the amino acids associated with the umami taste.
Vietnamese Nước Mắm Nhỉ 50-60N (Extra Virgin Fish Sauce)
Two areas for producing fine fish sauce in Việt Nam are Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết, but the best of the best, as widely agreed among Vietnamese come from Phú Quốc.
In a nutshell, making the fish sauce requires three parts fish to one part of sea salt, a ratio common to most produced in Southeast Asia. Anchovies or other tiny fish are usually used. Larger and more expensive fish such as mackerel or sardines can be substituted but it results in a costlier and less profitable product.
In Phú Quốc, they used cá cơm (rice fish), small white anchovies for the fish sauce production. The anchovies are stored in giant wooden barrels (vats) made from a tree called boi loi found only in a mountain located in Phú Quốc National Park and has become endangered and illegal to cut down. It is commonly believed that (vats) made from these trees impart a special flavour to the fish sauce, “like oak to wine.”
Anchovies are packed in layers of salt, and after about 3 days, liquid begins seeping from the fish and is drained and circulated back into the barrel every day for an entire year or more – long enough for it to reach concentration but not long enough for hydrosulfuric acid to appear, which would spoil the taste.
One barrel can store 14 of tons anchovies and produce 30,000 litres first extraction which called nước mắm nhỉ, “extra-virgin fish sauce” you can call it. Nước mắm nhỉ is reserved for direct consumption in dips and sauces, the flavour is savouriness and earthiness, full of umami (fifth flavour), rich and complex, like pure essence of cured meat. It tastes salty at first but the aftertaste is sweet. Subsequent extractions are produced by pumping running seawater through the barrel, which results in a weaker, lower-grade product normally used for cooking.
In Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết, it graded the fish sauce by gradients of colour. The darkest-coloured bottle labelled 50-60N/1L and come from the first extraction of liquid. The other lower number 40, 30, 20 N/L come from subsequent extractions after the water had been added. The number boils down to its degrees of nitrogen content per litre, a figure that tells the concentration of fish protein in each drop. While protein is solid, the process of fermentation breaks down the protein’s amino acid of which nitrogen is the main component.
Phú Quốc fish sauce became the first product from Southeast Asia to receive Protected Designation of Origin Certification from the EU Commission. To earn the prestigious label, a food product must be made entirely within a defined geographical area, using skills and ingredients from the region. European PDO products, including Prosciutto di Parma, Balsamic vinegar and Champagne, often enjoy a global reputation.
There is a huge confusing and misleading regarding Vietnamese traditional fish sauce and industrial one from Thailand. Industrial fish sauce – a mixture of diluted fish sauce and flavouring, colouring, and sweeteners, including, squid, salmon and mackerel which can’t be stored for long without preservatives. Such industrially made product “fish sauce” shouldn’t allow being called fish sauce at all. Whereas, the Vietnamese traditional fish sauce is made from small white anchovies, sea salt and water only.
It is unacceptable to apply the standards of Thailand, whose fish sauce makers do not make the fish sauce in the same way as Vietnamese ones, on a traditionally-made fish sauce of Vietnam.
Thailand’s fish sauces are diluted fish sauce mixed with chemicals so their nitrogen level can never be higher than 20N whereas Vietnam’s traditional fish sauces are made from fish and salt so they have an average nitrogen level of 20-30N and some up to 42-43N.
The higher nitrogen level is, the more fish are used which means higher level of histamine. If the regulation on histamine level should not exceed 400 milligrams per litre is passed, it will shut down all traditional fish sauce makers and there will be only industrial fish sauce left.
Traditional fish sauce makers are permitted to produce fish sauce by the local authority because they have met standards on food safety and have been doing very well in maintaining these standards.
It is essential to separate industrial fish sauce from traditional fish sauce and give back the name fish sauce to traditionally-made kind before making any regulations or standards on fish sauce.
Good nước mắm should be transparent. You should be able to see the other side of the bottle. The unique taste of fish sauce comes from a combination of weather, wooden barrels, temperature and the freshness of anchovies. For these reasons many producers cut corners and turn to industrial made practices to benefit profit gained.
The Phú Quốc nước mắm is endangered because with no regulations on the fishing season in Việt Nam, resulting in overfishing. The shortage of boi loi wooden for barrel forces factories to use other trees or even concrete or clay.
80-90 per cent fish sauce claiming to be from Phú Quốc are produced from somewhere else. Phú Quốc fish sauce is more difficult to export than other brands, as it tends to oxidize and change flavour quickly, because of the high fish protein contended.
NamNam’s retail fish sauce is from Phan Thiết
Phan Thiết is a central economic, political and cultural city of Bình Thuận province and located in the driest region of Southeast Asia. At its centre is a bustling little fishing port with a harbour full of colourful boats, vibrant outdoor markets and seafood restaurants.
Besides, Phan Thiết, which is famous for its seafood specialities, is also called a coastal city and characterized by typical climate and soil of the sea. Referring to Phan Thiết, people think about nước mắm. This is a traditional product which existed and developed for hundreds of years. With the sea climate and soil conditions as well as the traditional manufacturing process, an nước mắm product has been produced with identical characteristics which are different from ones manufactured in other localities.
Characteristics Of Phan Thiết Fish Sauce
Phan Thiết fish sauce is made from floating fishes, especially from 2 types of anchovy, charcoal anchovy and scads. Phan Thiết fish sauce is described as follows:
- Bright yellow for a fish sauce made from anchovy
- Brown yellow for a fish sauce made from scads or other types
- the typical smell of Phan Thiết fish sauce is without strange odour
- The strong sweet taste of protein, distinct aftertaste
- Clear viscid
- Total protein quantity: 30N-35N-40N
Lower numbered fish sauces — around 20N-25N — are usually diluted with water and other additives. 30N-35N are good for everyday cooking. 40N and above is where you start getting into smack-your-tongue-with-a-fish territory. The highest available is around 50-60N. Depending on the fish sauce itself, you’ll probably be wanting to use higher-N sauces for dipping, dressing and other applications where it can shine.