Fish sauce: much more than just a condiment
When served with noodles or pancakes, sugar, water, garlic and chili are added to the fish sauce to disguise the strong fish smell. (Photo tamsugiadinh.vn)
Just like rice, fish sauce is a staple of almost every dish in Vietnam.
“For Vietnamese people, a meal without fish sauce is considered incomplete,”
culture expert Tran Ngoc Them once wrote in his book Vietnam Culture
A bowl of fish
sauce, nuoc mam, is placed at the centre of the table so every
one can reach it. Some may not eat vegetables, some may not have meat, but
everyone has rice and seasons the food with fish sauce. Therefore, how one
places the fish sauce bowl can tell a lot about etiquette and consideration for
others, according to Them.
mention of fish sauce is found in Roman literature in the 4th century BC.
Nowadays fish sauce is popular in Southeast
Asian countries – in Thailand it is known as nam pla, in Myanmar as nganpyaarrai,
in the Republic of Korea as eojang.
In Vietnam, fish
sauce is used widely – as a seasoning, a dipping sauce, in humble daily meals
and at fancy parties. Nuoc mam is said to help
distinguish Vietnamese food from that of its neighbours.
Tribute to kings
No one knows exactly
when Vietnamese people started making and using fish sauce. It was first
documented in Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu or Complete Annals of Dai
Viet (Dai Viet is the former name of Vietnam), a book compiled by royal
historian Ngo Sy Lien in the 15th century.
The book mentions that
in the 10th century, locals made fish sauce and offered the condiment as a
tribute to kings. This indicates that Vietnamese people used fish sauce before
the 10th century and that it was a well-known specialty that Chinese rulers
demanded Vietnam give as payment.
Other Vietnamese historical books also recorded nuoc mam as
a specialty of some central regions of Vietnam and as a commodity required by
the government as a form of tax in some periods of the Nguyen dynasty
(1802-1945). In other words, households that made fish sauce had to pay the
government a certain amount of fish sauce every year.
Gifts of the sea
Fish sauce comprises two
elements – fish and salt, the two gifts of the sea. To make it, alternating
layers of fish and salt are placed in a wooden vat for six months to a year to
ferment. The amber-coloured liquid of the fermentation process seeps down and
American Poet Bruce
Weigl who fought in the battlefields of the central province of Quang Tri in
1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War, waxed poetic about Vietnamese fish sauce
in his writing My Own Personal Fish Sauce.
Weigl described his
experience of being offered rice with some fish sauce. “It was delicious: a
wonderful combination of pungent and sweet, and the richness too of the taste
of the river that flows back into the darkness where time is… It [fish sauce]
has become the smell of Vietnam for me in my mind when I’m home and lonely for
my second country.”
Weigl decided to try
making it himself at home in the US, becoming known as the “Fishsauce
Ambassador”. He has gone from ’being a fan
to being a connoisseur’.
Fish sauce may smell a
bit pungent for foreigners at first, yet once they try it, its aroma lingers in
Hue does it best
Fish sauce is used most
popularly in cooking, as seasoning accompanying meals and as a dipping sauce.
When served with noodles or pancakes, sugar, water, garlic and chili are added
to the fish sauce to disguise the strong fish smell.
“In a meal of Vietnamese people, rice is like the quintessence
from the earth, fish sauce is the quintessence of water. They symbolise the
Water and Earth of the five basic elements of the universe (the others being Fire,
Metal and Wood),” wrote Them.
“Fish sauce is used all over Vietnam, yet no region can use fish
sauce more cleverly than Hue people because in Hue (a former royal capital)
culinary culture, there are at least 30 different dipping sauces with the main
ingredient being fish sauce, featuring a number of flavours - salty, sweet,
sour, spicy, balanced, light, strong. It is simply because Hue people have
different dipping sauce for different dishes,” wrote culture researcher Tran Dang
There are many ways to classify fish sauce in Vietnam, according
to culture teacher Nguyen Thi Tuyet Ngan, from HCM City’s University of Social
Sciences and Humanities.
There is raw or cooked fish sauce; fish sauce in the form of liquid
or paste; sauce made from fresh water fish or salt water fish; sauce from fish
or shrimp, crab or squid.
Grab a crab
Besides fish, locals in three regions of Vietnam also ferment
crab, shrimp or squid to extract liquid.
The northern province of Thai Binh or central province of Thanh Hoa
have long been famous for their mam cay (fermented crab
sauce). Cay (sesarmidae), also known as red-chileped crab, is
found along rivers.
In the scorching heat of April and May, the creature comes out of
its hole, seeking food. This species is sensitive to sound and moves fast, so
catching them is hard.
To make crab sauce, a small knife is used to take out carapace
from female crabs to take its egg. The egg is often pan fried or stir fried
with oil and scallions, and is used as a dipping sauce served with vegetables.
Crab is then ground and added with salt and thinh (ground roasted rice).
The mix is put in sunlight for a month and the liquid easily
seeps down from the crab. Boiled dishes like pork or rau lang (sweet
potato’s leave) are paired well with crab sauce.
In many regions of Hau Loc, Hoang Hoa, Quang Xuong districts of
Thanh Hoa province, crab sauce is used in exchange for other commodities, like
There is a famous “courting” saying that goes:
“Hey girls (who’re) catching red-cheliped crab
Call me husband and I will catch it for you.”
Similarly, in the
southernmost province of Ca Mau, locals make fermented ba khia sauce.
There is a crab species named ba khia, which appears only a few
times in October, when the water rises. It is unique to the south, living in
brackish water regions.
Ba khia, with its carapace taken out and chelipeds cracked, is immersed
in salt, garlic, chili, lemon, sugar and sliced mango and star fruit. The mix
is ready to be served after a few days when the saltiness has blended with the
sourness of lemon, the sweetness of sugar and spiciness of chili. Ba khia paste
with its strong taste and unique flavour is paired well with rice and broth, a
modest yet tasty treat.-VNA