by Cassidy Armbruster
Don’t be deterred by the term fish sauce. Nor should you be deterred by the process that, from the pictures, looks somewhat unappetizing. Vietnamese fish sauce is my absolute favourite, whether it’s used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls or just used as a flavourful ingredient in cooking delicious Vietnamese cuisine. If you’re traveling in Vietnam, you’ll soon learn this is a staple ingredient.
Vietnamese fish sauce is extremely flavorful with a slightly salty, almost bitter taste. The sauce is cooked with a mixture of fermented anchovies, sardines, water, and salt. There are three different types of Vietnamese fish sauces that range in price and quality. Fish sauces are made throughout Southeast Asia, but differ depending on location, type, and use.
According to the lovely women I was acquainted with at the fish sauce company, high quality Vietnamese fish sauce takes about a year to be fully processed and ready to be transferred to bottles for sale. These workers explained toPhi (my tour guide in Hoi An) and I, that they must first order and purchase the fish, then store the fish to begin the fermentation process. The ingredients for the fish sauce are loaded into the metal barrels that are stored outdoors, and they remain there for eight to nine months. At some points during the hot seasons, the metal coverings are temporarily removed so the ingredients can soak in the hot sun, which, according to the women, enhances the quality of the fish sauce. The ingredients are layered in the metal containers with two parts fish, one-part salt, and often times, a layer of bamboo to prevent the fish from floating upwards. Following fermentation, the fish sauce is transported to the wooden barrels shown below, where the sauce is drained into buckets, and eventually stocked in plastic bottles for sale.
The women at the facility emphasized that they minimize waste and cost by re-using plastic bottles. The company therefore uses recycled water bottles to store and sell the fish sauce. As seen in the photograph, this woman is replacing hundreds of water bottle labels with the fish company’s label. After this step, the fish sauce is poured into the restored water bottles, and is ready to be sold. One woman said that so many bottles of fish sauce are sold a week that they cannot keep track of the exact amount sold annually. Although this woman could not give a definitive number of bottles sold per year, she did give a better picture when she said that some days hundreds, even thousands of bottles are sold.
Much like most jobs in Vietnam that involve a lot of manual labor, the women work extremely long days. They discussed with Phi and I that an average workday lasts ten hours, and each day they earn $150,000 Vietnamese dong - roughly $7 USD. The bottles are sold on average for 21,000 Vietnamese dong per liter (around $1). The high quality Vietnamese fish sauce is sold for 40,000 Vietnamese dong, mediocre for 18,000 Vietnamese dong, and the low quality fish sauce is sold for around 7,000 Vietnamese dong. One woman explained that you can tell the quality by the color of the fish sauce. The high quality fish sauce will be a dark, but still a clear solution, whereas the lower quality sauce will be much clearer. Often times restaurants will purchase the low or mediocre quality fish sauce, but then add garlic and peppers for flavor. Phi also explained that you can tell the quality of the fish sauce as it drips from the barrels into the buckets. The high quality fish sauce drips much less frequently than the lower quality fish sauce, whereas the low quality fish sauce drips consistently into the blue container.
From trying Vietnamese fish sauce on my first night in Hoi An to today, I have developed a much deeper respect and interest into all the work that goes into even the simplest of meals here in Vietnam. One wouldn’t assume that a little dipping sauce for your spring rolls at a casual dinner may have taken up to a year to be processed and ready for you to eat. If you are interested in learning more about what goes into a traditional Vietnamese meal, I recommend you take our food tours in Hoi An and/or Saigon where you’ll get to try fish sauce in various ways. They’re wild and exciting adventures, but they also teach you a lot about all that you will put into your mouth here in Vietnam!