Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Fish sauce: the spirit of Vietnam

Here I am back to my cocoon, staring into my own head and all I can see is a vortex spinning: faces and noises appear and disappear. I closed my eyes and everything standing still.
I was transported back to Lien’s apartment, her mother at the stove showing me how to grill the dried flat fish, she held up the grilled fish with a big smile showing me how the fish soften up and she skilfully opened up the fish and separated the whole bone structure, the meat was sweet and tasty with steamed rice.  I was amazed at her knowledge on fishes. She taught me how to make fish sauce and other methods of preserving fishes. She came from Phan Thiet, a coastal town on Highway One where the main industry is manufacturing fish sauce and other dried seafood products. Grandma, that’s how we all called her,
The flat dried fish opened up when grilled, the meat is sweeter than the dried squid claimed “Ba Ngoai”! (photo by LY)

“Grandma”, Lien’s mother is good at everything because for 8 years, she looked after her invalid daughter “Lien”, who could only lied flat on her stomach. “Ba Ngoai” dried seafood, made cakes, cooked noodle dishes for living and supporting her daughter. Out of desperation, she asked the media to help and they were rescued by Maison Chance and have been with there until now. Lien finally managed to sit up in the wheel-chair, she and her mother took turn to cook for all the residents of Maison Chance.
I spent my last few hours with Ba Ngoai, taking down recipes to make fish sauce and other methods of pickling.

I considered fish sauce (nước mắm), fine shrimp paste (mm tôm/ruc/tép) and yellow bean sauce (tương) as the magic ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine.

Fish sauce in the making

The commercially produced fish sauce, according to Ba Ngoai is not worth using, it is usually too diluted and “polluted“ by other chemicals. She showed me the real Phan Thiet fish sauce, which she brought with her. 
“This fish sauce”, she explained “is made with the small sardines and coarse sea salt only and it is the first pressed sauce, so it is rich in colour and sweet in taste,
It is very easy to make but it needs proper care and patience.”
So this is how it is made:
For ingredients:
3kg                        fresh small sardines or anchovie
1kg                        coarse sea salt
1 large pottery container with airtight lid.
1 mat
4 flexible bamboo sticks.
Clean anchovies or sardines with salt water. Pat dry.
In a large pottery container, arrange 1 layer of salt, 1 layer of fish until all packed in.
Using a bamboo mat press down the fish and secure with bamboo sticks, close with airtight lid.  After a couple of day, drain off the liquid, strained and pour it back over the fish. Cover the lid with straw leave in a sunny place and after 6 months strain to get the clear first pressed fish sauce.
This is called nuoc mam nhi and it is used mainly to make dipping sauce.
More water could be added for lower graded sauces, which is used for cooking.

But almost every brand of fish sauces available is adulterated with MSG (621), sugar, preservatives, caramel water etc., which to me is ludicrous. The consumers have to pay extra money for those additives and to build up future diseases.

Fish sauces can be made into delicious salad dressings, dipping sauces or pouring sauces. The flavours are as limited as your imagination. But mainly, one would try to achieve a balance of saltiness, sweetness, sourness and as pungent as you wish. The main ingredients are easily available anywhere on this planet: garlic, chilli, lemon grass, ginger, lemon, lime, vinegars….

The first pressed fish sauce is delicious with fresh cooked new rice, or just to add a little more flavour to other dishes.

The simple fish sauce, lemon juice, garlic, chilli & freshly ground pepper is great for dipping in crispy fried fish, boiled or fried morning glory, bamboo shoot.

Stir fry morning glory (photo by LY)

To dip Thanh Tri crepes, nothing is comparable to a balance sauce of fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, chilli and the essence of “ca cuong” (A Flat Water Beetles).

Banh cuon Thanh Tri:

Add garlic and a little extra vinegar into the above, the sauce will help cleansed the greasiness of fried food, like the famous and popular “Spring Rolls”.

Nem ran/ Cha gio: Spring rolls 

Fish sauce, vinegar, chili, garlic, sugar and ginger is a must for simple grilled or boiled bivalves.
Snails: Oc 

And for those who do not like chilli, garlic , vinegar then just add a little pepper to the pure fish sauce and it goes with so many dishes: poached chicken with lemon leaves, Vietnamese pork paste etc

Ga luoc (Poached chicken)

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