Red Boat Fish Sauce – A true traditional Vietnamese Fish” Nước mắm” sauce of old.
Like the production of wine, making fish sauce, or in Vietnamese “Nước mắm” is simple: first, start with freshly caught fish, add salt, store it in a barrel at the right temperature, create a perfect environment for fermentation, and allow ageing. But just like the finest wine, outstanding fish sauce requires excellent produce, the right setting, a blasé attitude toward the use of high-quality ingredients, a meticulous approach, and an intense desire to make nothing but the best. The former Apple engineer, Cuong Pham is the creative force behind the immensely popular Red Boat fish sauce, and I had the great fortune of being invited to visit him at the Red Boat Fish sauce production center on Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. Cuong's huge smile, warm demeanour, and amiability immediately endear him to anybody he meets. And what keeps you mesmerised, is his enthusiasm and eagerness to share his ways. Cuong’s Vietnamese mother, who wished for her country's traditional fish sauce, was the impetus for Cuong to begin manufacturing Fish sauce, along with childhood recollections of sprinkling traditional fish sauce on hot steamed white rice. I asked Cuong to break down the production of fish sauce into simple layman's terms, and for the next two hours, he had me in thrall with his showmanship, elucidating not only the steps involved but also his dedication to making the purest fish sauce in the world. The day before, I was shown the vast fishing operation on Phu Quoc Island and witnessed numerous small fishing boats bringing in their harvest, which consisted primarily of small silvery black-backed anchovies. Warm waters surrounding the island of Phu Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand are fished by vessels with open holds and long, small-mesh fishing nets. Only here do black-backed anchovies exist, and it is these fish which is that give Phu Quoc fish sauce its reputation as the greatest in the world. Weather permitting, the private fleet from Red Boat Fish sauce goes out every day in search of black anchovies. 20–30 metric tons of fish can be hauled in by each boat, and for centuries the gods have provided the fish in abundance, with seasonal weather and a short life span of species allowing the grounds to be fished sustainably. As the fish are freshly caught, the experienced crew pack them with salt in hessian bags at sea, which are transferred immediately to the land-based factory. At a ratio of 70/30 Fish to salt. The aged salt used is of the finest quality produced in Vietnam, and as soon as the fish are packed in the salt it begins to cure the fish almost immediately and promotes the breakdown of enzymes in the fish bellies, important to the fermentation and production of the fish sauce. Once ashore, the bags are opened and the fish and salt are removed from the sacks and layered into massive wooden barrels that can carry more than 13 tonnes of fish and salt each. Red Boat fish sauce is made by fermenting the fish and salt using centuries-old methods in enormous wooden barrels. Each barrel is constructed with seven rings of 300mm thick hand-bound rattan bands that expand and contract as the tank breathes during the fermentation process. There are a total of 46 of these barrels, each storing 13 tonnes of fish sauce fermentation and produce 4-5000 L per barrel. For the following twelve months, the fish will ferment and decompose, resulting in liquid settling to the bottom of each of the barrels. Each barrel has a draining faucet at its bottom and a pipe that connects to a separate plastic tank outside the barrel. The sauce is drains into an exterior tank where it collects, before being added back to the top of the wooden barrel and slowly percolates through the decomposing fish carcasses and salt once again. The fish sauce ferments for a total of 12 months, during which time this process is continuously repeated, one of the various approaches used in traditional production. Cuong notes that the weather on Phu Quoc is a crucial but irreplicable feature. Barrels of fish sauce are fermented naturally at the ideal temperature range of 32–37 degrees Fahrenheit, in the large well-ventilated barrel room. It is believed that the tropical atmosphere and ocean breezes of Phu Quoc Island contribute to its reputation for producing some of the world's finest fish sauces. Once maturing for twelve months, the fish fermentation is pressed, and only the first pressing is collected. Being a first-press, extra-virgin fish sauce aged for an optimum 12 months it has a very high concentration of nitrogen per litre, averaging 40°N. Red boat fish sauce has a yielding an especially intense umami flavour, characterised by a dark amber hue, a flavour which is rounded and well balanced, has an oily & buttery finish reminiscent of old-school Chardonnays, and has a subdued brininess, but not at all fishy. This all, from the union of two of Vietnam’s finest ingredients, salt and black anchovies. Producing a fish sauce which Cuong is very proud to say, has no additives, flavours, or preservatives added. Nothing but the purest fish sauce in the world. In addition to Cuong's informative tour of the factory, we got to try fish sauce at various stages of the fermentation process, and we had a lively discussion about the condiment's many applications. Fish sauce, like many other traditional Asian spices, has become a staple in the worldwide pantry in recent years, and may be found as an ingredient in dishes from all over the world. The one Vietnamese ingredient that can improve a Western dish, according to Cuong, is fish sauce. The umami saltiness it imparts is being put to good use by celebrity chefs all over the world as a salt substitute, a fantastic flavour enhancer, and distinctive, flavourful addition to many European and American dishes. While he said "many" when asked what his favourite dish was to prepare using fish sauce, two good standbys are Cá Kho (Vietnamese Caramelized Fish) and Tht Kho Tàu (Caramelized Pork And Eggs), both of which use a lot of fish sauce to make a sweetish caramelised sauce. A bowl of steaming white rice and a bottle of Nước mắm is Cuong's favourite dish, and it's one that my Vietnamese wife agrees with. The epitome of contentment, recalling fond times spent eating with loved ones at home. My curiosity in all things culinary was piqued once more, having had the opportunity to learn the process of preparing traditional fish sauce from a true passionate artisan. I had been conducting research on fish sauces in Vietnam for some time prior to my visit to the factory. Upon my departure, I now have a deeper understanding of Nước mắm and a deeper appreciation for the craftsmanship and artistry involved in the production of traditional fish sauce of unmatched quality. Cuong is not on Phu Quoc Island regularly to offer the tour I experienced, and the factory is almost a well-kept secret as even the local drivers had a hard time finding it, however, do contact Red boat and I'm sure their friendly staff can make arrangements. https://redboatfishsauce.com/