Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something twisting and turning, rhythmic and precise. It was only when I was directly in front of the Saigon street stall that I realized what was unfolding: the owner, a smiling man in his 40s who always greeted me as I walked by, was packaging nuoc cham, a condiment made from fish sauce, water, lime juice, and sugar. He was also adding thin slivers of pickled carrots to the tiny bags that piled in front of him.
What he was doing happens all over the city at street stalls and restaurants. Nuoc cham, or pure fish sauce, nuoc mam, accompanies many Southern Vietnamese dishes, and fish sauce is consumed by 95% of Vietnamese households.
But his motions – pouring the fishy liquid into tiny plastic bags, delicately deploying slender sliced carrots into the mix, and then elegantly curling his wrist for three turns of an elastic band – were mesmerizing. Each symmetrical package took only three seconds to make, and then waited to be added to a takeaway meal.
The History of Fish Sauce
In my travels, I’ve heard others cite fish sauce as one of those tastes that takes some getting used to for Western palates, along with stinky tofu and durian fruit, and the bright purple fermented shrimp paste that accompanies Vietnamese bun rieu soup. Its lingering smell leaves no mystery about its strong, fishy contents.
Used in Thailand as nam pla and Myanmar as ngan bya yay, as well as Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines under other local names and variations, one thing is certain regardless of preference: fish sauce plays a crucial role in flavouring food in Southeast Asia.
It has become my first ingredient of choice in a new city, something I use in homemade soups and curries, chicken marinates and salads, and even omelettes, adding a taste of Vietnam to my meal. To my taste buds, it is as evocative of my years in Southeast Asia as lime, garlic and chilies.
“This is more than just a condiment,” founder of Red Boat fish sauce, Cuong Pham, has said. “It’s so good, it’s like gold.”
In it purest form, the sauce is made from two ingredients: fish (usually anchovies) and salt, fermented together for months. Despite the fact that some fish sauce labels depict squid, shrimp, or even a man carrying a giant shrimp over his shoulder (my favourite, for obvious reasons), the ingredients remain the same: fish and salt. Both are placed into huge vats – usually three parts fish to one part salt – and weighted down to prevent the fish from floating to the surface as fermentation begins.
Once liquid begins to seep out of the fish, it is drained and reintroduced to the vat for the full fermentation process, which lasts “long enough for it to reach concentration, but not long enough for hydro-sulfuric acid to appear, which would spoil the taste.” Usually this process takes nine months to one year, with the vats sitting in the sun as the fish sauce takes form.
Fish Sauce in Roman Times
The earliest origins of fish sauce date back to Roman times, where the condiment was known as garum. Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino notes that garum was mentioned in Roman literature all the way back to the 4th century BC, and that remains of garum factories have been excavated in Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa.
Roman fish sauce was used in a variety of recipes, like those from Apicus’s cookbook De Re Coquinaria – available for free online – as well as a general substitute for salt and a base for sauces. Pompeii was famous in ancient times for its production of garum.
In modern day cuisine, fish sauce is almost completely absent from Italian food with the exception of colatura di alici, a fish sauce still made in factories in the village of Cetara in Italy’s Salermo’s region. Some believe garum fell out of fashion because salt was too difficult to procure following the collapse of the Roman Empire. In addition, without Roman protection of the coast, pirates began to cut off trade as the empire waned.
In his book Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky theorizes that the two fish sauces were not a result of the other, but instead developed in the East and West at separate times.
“The sauce appears to be, as some historians believe of the domesticated pig, an idea that occurred independently in the East and the West. The Asian sauce is thought to have originated in Vietnam, though the Vietnamese must have taken it in ancient times from the Chinese soy sauce, in those early times when the Chinese fermented fish with the beans.”
Kurlansky also goes on to note that, upon entering Vietnam, the French were horrified to find that the Vietnamese ate “rotten fish.” The Pasteur Institute in Paris then spent years studying nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) to ascertain how it was fermented. Such a small amount of this condiment adds a punch of flavour to any meal, almost magically so.
In contrast, food historian Laura Kelley suggests on her blog that garum was the parent of modern day fish sauce, passing along the trade routes from West to East.
“So, once again, we can identify a product that flowed from west to east and was eagerly adopted by Asians on the Silk Road. The recipes for garum changed and adapted as they moved east and became nuoc mam and nam pla according to cultural preferences and what gifts the Asian seas had to offer. Archaeologists and food scientists are working to confirm these flows and linkages, so stay tuned to this channel to learn more about garum production in the ancient world and in the kitchen of Chez Kelley.”
These days, fish sauce is a staple in Southeast Asia, with the version from the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc being the first product in Southeast Asia to receive a Protected Designation of Origin certification from the EU Commission. While the production depends on the availability of fish, for the moment it appears to be on the rise in the West, both with Asian recipes and to add flavour to more traditional staples.
While we travel for the people and the culture, for the stories and the food, we sometimes take the origins of individual ingredients, like fish sauce or chili peppers, for granted.
If this short overview of fish sauce was interesting you might want to read:
• Salt, by Mark Kurlansky: From the book page: “The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.”
The Fish Sauce Cookbook, by Veronica Meewes. Pretty self explanatory!
History of Ketchup, an article by Dan Jurafsky (spoiler: it also involves fermented fish)
And for those who are vegan or don’t like the taste, a fish sauce substitution can be found in this vegan fish sauce recipe.
I wrote this piece originally for the G Adventures blog and it originally appeared there.