Fish sauce is to Vietnamese cooking what salt is to Western and soy sauce to Chinese cooking. Fish sauce is used as a condiment and flavoring. It is included in practically all recipes.
Raw material of making fish sauce is fish. Only the fresh anchovy fish makes the good quality fish sauce that is clear in color and good smell. Popular throughout Southeast Asia, fish sauce can also be any of various mixtures based on the liquid from salted, fermented fish. This extremely pungent, strong-flavored and salty liquid can range in color from ochre to deep brown.
For the pure fish sauce, fresh anchovy fish sauce is selected and mixed with salt by using Vietnamese own traditional process. Fermentation is started once a year, during the fishing season. After about 3 months in the barrel, liquid drips from an open spigot, to be poured back into the top of the barrel. After about 6 months the fish sauce is produced.
The unique characteristic of fish sauce is salty flavor and fishy smell. One interesting characteristic of fish sauce is that it loses its fishy odor once it is mixed in with other ingredients. It is commonly used as seasoning for cooking and dipping seafood and other Vietnamese foods.
The two towns most noted for their fish sauce are Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet. On the label, the “nhi” signifies the highest quality.
Phan Thiet is the largest town in Binh Thuan province with an estimated population of close to 100,000 people. The town sits on the borders of Ca Ty river, is 20 Km from the ocean and swells with boats during the fishing season in the summer months. Fishing is Phan Thiet’s largest industry. According to local statistics, some 100 different varieties of fishes are caught here with an annual yield of over 70,000 tons. As a result, Phan Thiet is famous for its Nuoc Mam (fish sauce), a seasoning used in Vietnamese cuisine.
Most visitors to Phan Thiet will notice the pungent odor that is associated with fish sauce production. This is a process where anchovy-like fishes are caught, cleaned and place in large vats of brine. The whole concoction is cured over a period of eight months to a year before the fish by-products are strained and the liquid is then diluted into less concentrated solutions to be bottled.
Fish sauce from Phan Thiet is available throughout Vietnam. Today, the annual production of nuoc mam in Phan Thiet is 16-17 million liters per annum. The salt used in the production of fish sauce is also a local product of Binh Thuan province. Although fishing is a big industry in Phan Thiet, it still remains a family business for many people in the region. While the men are out at sea, women and children often stay home to support the business by mending nets and tending to shore related chores.
To visit the factories in Phan Thiet continue through the toll gate and the factory is located around 200m on your right hand side, opposite the river.