Fish sauce primer
By popular request (and since the question came up several times), I posted a basic primer on how to pick fish sauce. You can find it here, in the recipes section of the website.
Comments welcome (the recipe itself won’t take comments, so do leave them here).
A fish sauce shop in Phú Quốc (picture courtesy of Jennifer Yin on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial Generic 2.0 license).
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I use fish sauce every day, but I still don’t use it fast enough to keep two separate bottles going. According to a few different articles I’ve read in the last little while, the °N standard gives the number of grams of N per liter of fish sauce and the higher the N, the higher the protein. The best ones (for use in its pure state) are 30N and higher. The highest level N fish sauces have, I’ve been told, complex layered flavours. A friend on Twitter, after reading a post I did on fish sauce recently, told me he’d tried the famous Red Boat fish sauce, supposedly the best on the market. This stuff costs $10USD for 500 ml! Or $13 if you get their 50N. I asked my friend if it was worth the money. His answer: “No. It’s good for nước mắm sống/raw only. If you have to mix/pha for dipping, then you pay too much for fish sauce.”
Phan Thiết produces fish sauce that rivals Phú Quốc’s and as someone commented on my blog, Nha Trang is another area where fish sauce is made. My in-laws always seem to have Phan Thiết fish sauce on their counter, but Huế people also make the stuff, and the road to the beach is lined with houses that have the huge clay fermentation jars in their yards.
I don’t find fish sauce stinky, but once my MIL bought some horrible stuff that was almost black and really did stink. Ugh. Btw, other wordings I’ve seed on labels to denote quality are: nước mắm nhĩ nguyên chất (pure) and nước mắm nhĩ đặc biệt (special).
I think one reason Viet people in the diaspora have no or little issue with Thai brands is that when the first boat people arrived on other (non-Asian) shores, there was NO fish sauce. Then Thai and Pinoy brands become available, so they were like manna. In the case of the US, there was no Viet fish sauce available until 1994 because of the trade embargo.
Guess I better stop now… 😀
Chris, thank you so much for commenting! That’s what I suspected about the higher N fish sauces–not much point if you’re mixing them with something else… (thought there is a difference between first and second pressing–I would never use a 1st pressing in a dipping sauce).
And oh yeah, I forgot Nha Trang as a source of fish sauce–I remember when we went there it was prominently displayed.
Regarding the availability of fish sauce: I know a third-gen whose grandparents remember using soy sauce instead of fish sauce, because there wasn’t even fish sauce available…