On your Vietnam travel, you will definitely happen to taste Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) at least once. This liquid condiment has a long history of development. Considered “the soul of Vietnamese cuisine”, nuoc mam has contributed significantly to making Vietnam’s culinary culture stay high on top.
1. How is the authentic Vietnamese fish sauce processed?
Fish sauce is a type of flavoring made out of salted fish that has undergone a year of fermentation. Sauce can also be found in some other Southeast Asian countries and the southern Chinese areas. Still, no place in this world will ever appreciate fish sauce as much as Vietnam does.
So what is Vietnamese fermented fish sauce made of?
Good “nuoc mam” is the juice in the flesh of fish that is extracted after a prolonged salting and fermentation process. It requires years to make top-quality Vietnamese dipping fish sauce. Regarding Vietnamese fish sauce ingredients, anchovies (cá cơm) are the typical one; however, some types of fish sauce can be made from other small fishes.
These small fishes are packed into large barrels, jars, or crocks, with layers of salt. The fish are supposed to be fermented for 12 to 15 months, depending on specific production requirements. After a good amount of time, the newly-created sauce is extracted and undergoes an inspection on its nitrogen level. The final product is only successful if it passes the strict requirements set by the Ministry of Health.
What is considered to be good-quality “nuoc mam” is a sauce that does not have a super strong smell while possessing a shining golden color.
Other than being a dipping sauce, Vietnamese fish sauce is widely used as a must-have component in the recipes of local dishes and has long been likened to the soul of Vietnamese food.
2. Why is fish sauce considered the culinary quintessence of Vietnam?
While the Chinese love to use soy sauce and the Europeans usually use salt and pepper for their dishes, the Vietnamese prefer fish sauce. It adds a distinct aroma and flavor to the local foods.
You can find Vietnamese fish sauce in almost all Vietnamese specialties. It might come as the dipping sauce for “bánh xèo” (sizzling cake), “gỏi cuốn” (spring rolls), and “cá chiên” (fried fish), just to name a few. At the same time, this sauce is the main spice of some other famous delicacies, such as “cánh gà chiên mắm” (fried chicken wings with Vietnamese fish sauce), “kho quẹt” (Vietnamese caramelized shrimp and pork dip), “bún trộn” (Vietnamese noodles with fish sauce), “dưa món” (pickled vegetables with Vietnamese fish sauce), and “thịt kho” (braised meat).
3. The 4 most popular variations of dipping fish sauce for meals
When Vietnamese fish sauce is combined with other ingredients like sugar, lime juice, and chilies, the fishy smell fades away and its ability to add richness and flavor to food becomes apparent. An interesting fact is that not all fish sauce is created in the same way. Their preparation can vary from region to region throughout Vietnam.
Depending on the kind of food, you will need to put your own twists on the recipe or adjust the amount of sauce used. It is all about how to make it perfectly to your taste.
If listing all out, the number of variations of Vietnamese dipping fish sauce might reach hundreds. Below are the 4 most popular Vietnamese fish sauces that you will likely come across in Vietnam.
3.1. Fish sauce with sliced chili (Nuoc mam man ot xat)
The first to be mentioned in the list of the best Vietnamese fish sauces is the one that requires the least change. This sauce is served with some slices of chili only. In this way, you can enjoy the authentic and original taste and aroma of Vietnamese fish sauce.
3.2. Sweet and sour fish sauce (Nuoc mam chua ngot)
The next variation is the sweet and sour fish sauce, a very popular Vietnamese fish sauce that can go with any kind of food. The main ingredients are fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, minced garlic, and chili. Mixing them might sound simple, but in fact, getting the perfect balance of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness is easier said than done.
3.3. Ginger fish sauce (Nuoc mam gung)
For some dishes like veal meat, duck meat, and snails, “nuoc mam gung” (ginger fish sauce”) is the best match. It is quite similar to the sweet and sour fish sauce, but for this variation, ginger is a must-have. Some people love to use minced ginger, while others might prefer it to be sliced.
3.4. Tamarind fish sauce (Nuoc mam me)
This is the typical sauce of the Southern region’s people. It is often served with local dishes like deep-fried eel, grilled dried fish, etc. Tamarind juice is mixed with Vietnamese fish sauce, sugar, chili, and garlic. It is sour, sweet, and salty at the same time, creating a mouth-watering taste.
4. Which Vietnamese fish sauce brand to choose?
Fish sauce is a national culinary symbol, and each region has its own secret to make the best sauce. There are several brands of sauce in the market, and it is not easy to find a good Vietnamese fish sauce if you are not a local. Hence, we have listed out the top-rated Vietnamese fish sauce brands that you can choose from.
4.1. Khai Hoan Fish Sauce
If you are considering where to buy Vietnamese fish sauce, Khai Hoan Fish Sauce is a reliable place to come to. It is a renowned Phu Quoc fish sauce brand that has 40 years of history. With its traditional recipe and a high-standard system of barrelhouses and manufacturing processes, Khai Hoan Fish Sauce provides top-notch products with perfect color and taste, deserving to be a leading fish sauce manufacturer in Vietnam.
4.2. Nam Ngu Fish Sauce
This is a product of the reputable Masan Consumer. First appearing in the market in 2007, Nam Ngu Fish Sauce now ranks first in the market in terms of the number of consumers. It is estimated that around 50 million people use this fish sauce brand in their daily life. Nam Ngu Fish Sauce can be found easily in any mart or grocery store.
4.3. Cat Hai Fish Sauce
Cat Hai Fish Sauce is a common name referring to all kinds of fish sauce produced in Cat Hai Island District, Hai Phong. The waters in Hai Phong have abundant sources of natural fish, making it an ideal place to produce Vietnamese fish sauce. The locals not only use anchovies but also add other fishes to make their fish sauce, which has a distinctive aroma and taste.
4.4. Ca Na Fish Sauce
Established in the 20th century, after more than 100 years of development, Ca Na is always one of the best variations of Vietnamese fish sauce. Ca Na Fish Sauce is 100% made from anchovies that are freshly caught from the nearby sea, combined with high iodized sea salt. The fish sauce from this land offers an extraordinarily strong aroma and taste that can satisfy even the most demanding consumers.
4.5. Phan Thiet Fish Sauce
Together with Phu Quoc, Phan Thiet is known as one of the most famous fish sauce production sites. The most noticeable difference between Phan Thiet fish sauce, Phu Quoc fish sauce, and other regions is the color of the sauce. Use of anchovies would lead to a straw yellow color, while use of scad fish would lead to a light brown color.
You can easily buy Vietnamese fish sauce as gifts when visiting some coastal provinces or cities like Da Nang, Nha Trang, Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, Phu Quoc, etc. You can also take a culinary tour to the local fish sauce factory to see how it is made.
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Being one of the most popular flavoring elements in the S-shape country, Vietnamese fish sauce is so important to its culinary culture that almost all Vietnamese recipes call for it. If you are about to travel to Vietnam, don't miss out on the full flavor that “nuoc mam” brings.