Phú Quốc’s Treasures – Fish Sauce & Pepper
Phú Quốc, in the Gulf of Thailand, is Việt Nam’s largest island and resonates with Khmer, Chinese and Vietnamese influences. Throughout history, the Khmer have been the island’s main inhabitants, with the Vietnamese and Chinese settling during the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite its proximity to Cambodia (which on a clear day can be seen from its northern shore), the French colonial authorities gave the island to Việt Nam, although Cambodia continues to claim it as theirs, calling it Koh Tral. Despite efforts by the French to establish coconut and rubber plantations, the island’s inhabitants stuck with two main industries: making fish sauce, and growing pepper.
Surrounded by rows of wooden vats, each holding over 10,000 liters of the condiment on which, along with rice and herbs, an entire Vietnamese cuisine is built, the aroma of fermenting fish hung thickly in the tropical air. Fish sauce is high in amino acids, nitrates, vitamins, and minerals. It’s easy to see how important it is in a diet where fish and meat were once saved for community feasts and other rare occasions.
For centuries the fish sauce of Phú Quốc has been reputed to be the best in the country, if not the region. In the early 19thcentury, Trịnh Hoài Đức, governor of the Việt Nam’s southern provinces likened its aroma to the sweetness of cinnamon, and it was so sought after that it had to be shipped under guard to the mainland.
Good fish sauce has a dark color, yet remains transparent. One way to test its quality is to dip a finger in it, then into clean water: if the scent disappears, the sauce is of lower quality. Another way to determine the quality is to slurp the fish sauce straight from tasting spoons, and while we probably wouldn’t have settled for cinnamon, there was a complex, savory and mouth-filling richness of maritime flavors just beneath that first taste of saltiness.
The basics of making fish sauce appear deceptively simple: three parts fish and one part salt are packed in layers into the vats and weighed down by a heavy lid; it is then left to nature to run its course. The salt preserves the fish and assists in separating liquids from solids during fermentation. The fish is kept in the vats for at least 12 months, and every day during that time, the liquid from the bottom of that vat is poured back over the fish and salt mixture. Yet within this straightforward procedure, a skilled artisan can turn fermenting fish into liquid gold.
The locals claim three things set their nước mắm apart. First, the fish: a variety of anchovies called cá cơm, found only in the waters around the island. Second, using wooden vats instead of the earthenware ones employed elsewhere is said to contribute to the taste, in the same way, oak does with wine. (Traditionally, wood from cây bời lời tree native to Phú Quốc was used to make the vats, but the tree is now considered endangered and vats are now made with other wood or in more industrial operations with concrete). Finally, many Phú Quốc fish sauce artisans add a little of the local pepper (tiêu) to the salt mixture.
Phú Quốc’s climate and soil are particularly suited to growing this spice, and there are almost 400 hectares of pepper gardens on the island. Historically, Việt Nam imported pepper from China, but in the 19th century, it decided that importing pepper farmers instead might be more lucrative in the long term. Settlers from Hainan started the island’s pepper industry. Phú Quốc pepper is a big seed with thin skin, harvested from February to early July when peppercorns start to turn a reddish color. Most of the pepper plantations are in Cửa Dương, in the centre of the island.
Pepper farms are called vườn tiêu (peppercorn garden), easily identified by the tall columns of bushy pepper vines. Hand-picked from vines growing up to 10 meters in height, the green seeds are briefly cooked in hot water to tear the skin, speeding up the drying process. They are then laid out under the sun on every available surface – be they front yards, roofs, or the side of the roads – until they have shriveled into hard black corns, ready to be cracked to release their aromatic, spicy flavor.