The sweet smell of fermenting fish

A nice variety from the fish sauce capitals of Phu Quoc Island and Phan Thiet.
A nice variety from the fish sauce capitals of Phu Quoc Island and Phan Thiet.

I used to be with all of you on fish sauce. Many friends and family of mine too, have also smelt the strong, pungent smell of what seems to be raw, rotting  fish and have ran a mile at the thought of ingesting anything at the source of it. In the past it actually gave me the feeling to want to pass some food…. but in the opposite direction!

All that has changed for me now, I love it – the smell, the taste – and I eat it daily. In reality it’s nowhere near as disgusting as black pudding, haggis or blue cheese (all of which I also love). Unlike the previously mentioned ‘treats’ it’s oh-so-healthy for you too; fish sauce in it’s purest form in is so natural and full of good oils.

In SE Asia, it’s the alternative to the ‘western’ table salt (which unfortunately I love) and it’s literally found on every table where any meal is served. Add chilli and their’s your pepper! 🙂

Juicy suckers…

So, a reason why fish sauce kinda smells like raw, rotting fish is quite simple. It actually is the leftover ‘juice’ of raw, rotting fish. The whole process starts out with thousands upon thousands of teeny weeny fish. Sardines or anchovies are usually used –  fish that are so small that nothing else can really be done with them. They must be super fresh though and the way to keep them as fresh as possible is to start the process almost as soon as they are caught. After being caught they are rinsed on the boat and mixed in with sea salt to preserve their small, juicy and delicious bodies. This is the start of a fairly simple process.

Back on terra firma, this fleshy, salty mix is then transferred into large earthenware containers (or large commercial vats) when yet more salt is added . Inside the containers a cover is placed over the fish, and then weights are placed on top to compress the mixture and over time, squeeze out the delecious juice. This cover also prevent any fishies floating about in the juices that will develop over the fermenting time of up to nine months!

These days actually, we don’t have to wait as long for the golden nectar, as with the help of modern enzymes we can hasten the fermentation so that the time from fish to sauce can be decreased to about three months. Personally, I find it hard to believe that something rotting for so long can still be somewhat edible, yet still remain so delicious. The wonders of my favourite seasonings; salt…. what can’t it do!?

My friends father at their family home in Thap Cham, preparing the salt/fish mixture
Cute, huh?!

After fermentation is complete, the liquid gold is drained from a small tap at the bottom of the containers. This product  is 100% pure fish sauce and if made it the family home, it will stay that way. In commercial operations it is often diluted with other ingredients to make it go further – just like how honey often is – but it’s still almost as good.

Once on the table you will still find many different personal variations. Add anything you like but often it’s sugar, chilli and lime, though, however it’s made and wherever it is served, it always seems to have a slightly different and unique taste. Often, when I eat with a Vietnamese friend, they will always try the fish sauce before anything else on the table. They will then usually add a comment on how tasty it is…. but whether it’s at the good or bad end of the fish sauce scale, they continue to return back to their small portion dish of  Nước Mắm several times while they eat and finish it happily.

I once heard a sad, but heart warming story once about a family during the terrible ‘Invasion War’ and conveys the strength that a humble, stinky sauce can bring to the people-

“Their was a father and everyday he would have leave his family, not knowing if he would return like he did the night before.  He was beside by his cadres, fighting and working all day and most of the night to defend his country and people. During the days of war, there was such little farming done and so food was in such small rations that the family would often be close to starvation. The morning was an important time for all to gather together before father left. The children and mother would get close, surround him and he would hold a small bowl in his lap. This bowl had a small amount of fish sauce in it, but not enough for everyone, only a little for the father each day. He would have a few sips of the fish sauce, every morning and his family, whilst hungry themselves, would still be able to feel the warmth, comfort and strength that the sauce brought to him to fight another day. This strength would transfer to them and give them hope & belief that their homeland would eventually have peace”

A portion of fish sauce to share with others, prepared by my friend Sunnan.

I think the biggest factor as to why I see fish sauce as no real threat anymore, is that personally I’ve had the chance to smell and taste so many more disgusting things here, that fish sauce is the least of my worries now! I will mention again, – when you forget about the smell…. almost anything tastes better. Beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, noodles, rice, eggs… anything apart from fruit, chocolate or cake (although I’ve never tried it….yet).


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