Nuoc mam defines Vietnamese culinary tradition

July 4, 2006

Traditional Miscellany


by Huu Ngoc

I ate dinner more than once with Tran Dang Khoa, the poet in restaurants during the course of our travels. Before tasting the regional specialities, he always began by serving himself a small bowl of hot rice sprayed with a little nuoc mam (fish sauce).

Nuoc mam has such a strong smell that airlines forbid its transport on their aircraft. There were some young Vietnamese going to study abroad who had transgressed that prohibition. In the 1980s, a Vietnamese student who came from Ha Noi had caused a regrettable scandal at the East Berlin airport: he slipped on the waxed floor and had fallen flat on his back, breaking a bottle of nuocmam hidden in a nylon bag. Getting rid of the smell took hours.

Why does nuoc mam have such a strong power of gastronomic seduction? Nuoc means water or liquid. Mam means the brine of fish or crustaceans often conserved as a thick liquid, of which the people of Southeast Asia are very fond. Nuoc mam is a salted solution that comes from the fermentation of the flesh of small fish. It is a Vietnamese speciality. (There is also another type of fish sauce in Thailand.) To make it, one adds alternating layers of fish and salt in a huge wooden barrel. After a certain time, one removes the liquid accumulated at the bottom and pours it back on top. This is done repeatedly. The first extracted solution (nuoc cot, nuoc nhat) is very rich in protein, often drunk in winter by fishermen and divers to preserve body heat. The nuoc mam nhi (or ri) extracted directly from the bottom of the barrel is of the best quality. Nuoc mam contains sodium chloride, amino acids, histamines, organic phosphate and minerals.

I visited centres of production of the best nuoc mam in Viet Nam: the islands of Phu Quoc, Phan Thiet, and Cat Hai. I was very impressed by the importance of their production, particularly for Vietnamese living abroad. During the era of French colonisation, the Lien Thanh Company of Phan Thiet distributed nuoc mam in the country and abroad, having presented the sauce to the l’Exposition Internationale (International Exposition) in Marseilles in 1922. Phan Thiet became a famous commercial brand. Unilever, a major European food company, created a business on the island along with 18 local partners. The joint venture company Quoc Duong produced and bottled ultra-hygienic nuoc mam (20 million litres per year), a proportion of which was exported to overseas Vietnamese in France, Germany and in the United States. The company preserved the traditional way of production of nuoc mam. I have met the Phu Hiep family, who specialised in nuoc mam for three generations.

A handicap for the exportation of nuoc mam to Europe and America is its odour, although it is not stronger than Roquefort or Gibier faisande. Once the repugnance of the smell is conquered, the amber liquid finally pleases the palate. Cook Cam Van presented it to a culinary festival organised by the Culinary Institute of America in the United States, and French chef Didier Corlou of the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi organised a symposium about nuoc mam. To neutralise the odour, Ms Mai Pham counselled people to serve it diluted with a special sauce, and to never add it to a plate being prepared without a hot saucepan (“The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking,” Prima Publishing, 1996).

Traditional Vietnamese meals are served with all dishes displayed on a round brass tray, with a bowl of nuoc mam in the middle. Diners soak pieces of food in nuoc mam. Nuoc mam is also served to raise the tastes of all dishes. It is a sauce served plain, or mixed with other ingredients: red chilli seasoning, ginger, oil, vinegar, sugar and lime. Nuoc mam served with hard-boiled duck eggs is a Ha Noi speciality. Nuoc mam condensed by heat is a dietary element and is considered good for sick people and mothers of newborns. Nuoc mam paste was served to conserve the fighters along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war. — VNS

One Response to “Nuoc mam defines Vietnamese culinary tradition”

  1. wiroj Says:

    Thank you for useful information. In Thailand, fish sauce is also very important on each meal. The very first thing being served on the your meal when you have a lunch or dinner in thai restaurant is ” fish sauce with chilli”. Chopped Thai Chilli normally added in the small bowl of fish sauce. Lemon or Lime may be added to this bowl to enhance the its taste. In Thailand one family with 3-4 members consumes more than 1 litre monthly.

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