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Chitter-chatter on fish sauce
By Nguyen Yen Binh
Saturday,  Feb 9, 2019,08:35 (GMT+7)

Chitter-chatter on fish sauce

By Nguyen Yen Binh

Once in a while, in the midst of the hectic life, a random thought may cross the mind of a Vietnamese. And in that very moment of unmindfulness, does the person in question ever think about a day when he or she doesn’t have fish sauce, the most popular condiment in Vietnam?

Fish sauce is both a dish and a seasoning, so familiar that you do not realize it is present throughout the life of a Vietnamese. Fish sauce when used to season and marinate brings out a delicious taste, but it is left out in the name of the dish it helps enhance the flavor. There are days when we Vietnamese eat rice with fish sauce. In this case, fish sauce is undeniably a dish. Eating rice with fish sauce! It sounds a little sad, as it seems someone is having a hard time. Still, it is not necessarily the case. In oriental medicine, fish sauce is a cure for cold. If you have ever had a meal with rice—the newly harvested one that is soft and still carries the smell of straw—and fish sauce mixed with garlic and red chili that offers a spicy and slightly sour taste, in a cold evening when it is raining, then that flavor may forever remain in your memory.

It is unknown when exactly fish sauce has become a part of the life of the Vietnamese. In the Dai Viet su ky toan thu compiled by Le Van Huu, it was said that prior to 997, the ambassadors sent by the Song dynasty of China to Dai Viet (now Vietnam) often made all kinds of excuses to demand more fish sauce. Thus, at least the Vietnamese have eaten and made fish sauce since the tenth century.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Dai Nam nhat thong chi mentioned the use of fish sauce in Hai Duong, Quang Binh, Nghe An, and Binh Thuan. In Phu Quoc (then part of Ha Tien Province), there were only records of the swallow’s nests, tortoises sea cucumbers, cinnamon, and black amber, with no reference to fish sauce.

However, according to another document, which was written not long after the Dai Nam nhat thong chi, in December 1879, marine engineer J. Renaud (1) due to the need to find a mooring near Phu Quoc Island conducted a 15-day survey from the 16th to the 31st, then drew a map of Phu Quoc at a scale of 1:20,000 and took a note that Phu Quoc fish sauce was served at the dinner table of Annam King and the rich in Guangzhou: this fish sauce is very clear and almost odorless, different from the pungent type found in Phuoc Tinh near Ba Ria.

Also around this time, Étienne Aymonier in his 159-page report on Binh Thuan in 1884-1885, said there were a lot of fish in the waters of Phan Rang, Phan Ri, Mui Ne and Phan Thiet, and that Binh Thuan fish sauce was taken to Saigon for sale and exported to Singapore.

In the early twentieth century, the 136th issue of the Kinh te Dong Duong journal for May and June 1919 ran an article by M. Koch about a fair in Hanoi in 1918, which mentioned the name of Van Van fish sauce in Hoa Hy, Quang Yen, with an average of 100,000 liters produced each year and sold to people in Hanoi and Bac Ninh.

For a few decades, there were two main markets in Northern Vietnam—namely Nam Dinh and Hanoi—where fish sauce made in Dong Hoi, Ha Tinh, Vinh, and Thanh Hoa was consumed, but in a smaller quantity than Saigon. Saigon bought fish sauce from Binh Thuan and Phu Quoc.

As per the 1925 statistics of a French officer in Phan Thiet, there were 638 fish sauce production facilities in Binh Thuan, which housed 1,525 large and 7759 small and medium wooden barrels. Meanwhile, the tax department of Phan Thiet reported that 40,618,160 liters of fish sauce were sold to other provinces, contained in 13 million bottles with a capacity of 3-3.25 liters each. The selling price was estimated at 25-40 dong per batch of 125 bottles. The commercial value ranged from 2.6 million to 4.16 million dong, equivalent to 2.2-3.3 million bushels of rice. The price of rice in Southern Vietnam was 1.17 dong per bushels in 1925 (2). These numbers highlight the value of the traditional Vietnamese industry in Binh Thuan, whose production accounted for seven tenths of the volume of fish sauce made in Indochina, with Saigon as the main market. By 1928, Phan Thiet had produced 50 million liters of fish sauce per year (3).

The coast of Vietnam is more than 3,200 kilometers long. Where there are fish, fish sauce can be made. However, how tasty the sauce is depends on the species of the fish used, the skills of each maker, and the techniques of each production facility. By 1950s, Phu Quoc fish sauce had become a top-class product known as nuoc mam hon (roughly island fish sauce).

The Mekong Delta with its dense network of natural canals remained a wilderness in the seventeenth century. In the middle of the eighteenth century, this land became fertile, and was later known as “the granary of Cochinchina (the term used in the French domination for southern Vietnam).” The major sources of income for the people there were agro-forestry-fishery products, most importantly rice, followed by areca nuts, sugar cane, wild animals, seasonings, feathers, honey, and fish. Fish sauce did not have a specific name, but was known collectively as “seasonings” along with salted dishes, dried fish, and pickles, among others.

During the flood season, schools of white fish might be found in the upstream of the Tien and the Hau rivers, particularly anchovies and mud carps. In the sixties of the last century, heaps of mud carps could be seen along the banks of these rivers. This was an ingredient for local people to make fish sauce. Anchovies were preferred, however, since mud carps with a gallbladder that tasted bitter and a lot of oil made it extremely hard to produce delicious fish sauce.

Also during the flood season, some of the fish followed the flow of water to the fields to feed themselves. When the water receded, they returned to the river. As the water retreated swiftly, those fish which failed to catch up get stuck in the fields or the ponds, fleshy and healthy after sufficient consumption of nutrition. Fish caught this way were very delicious, white-flesh and chubby. Local people then chose the fish to salt and dry, and the remainder was used to make fish sauce, all of which were reserved to consume gradually throughout the year. As regards making fish sauce with fish caught in the fields, people were often not picky. After they made salted and dried fish, whatever left was used to make fish sauce, a way to treasure natural resources. Given the many species of fish and different times for disintegration, it required much effort and dedication to produce fine fish sauce.

Fish sauce made from river anchovies and that made from the fish caught in the fields carried a unique taste, delicious in their own way—which can be likened to home-made products for a family. Some households used the fish stuck in their fields to make fish sauce for sale, but fish sauce produced this way had an unpleasantly strong smell and could not be compared with those made from sea fish. Therefore, this kind of fish sauce sold at a low price, usually available at small markets or transported by boats through the labyrinth of canals to remote villages, where people had to depart in the middle of the night to get to the nearest market in time.

Fish sauce made from river anchovies after extraction and sun exposure had a dark red color. They were often sold within the delta, or to Saigon at the farthest. No one has ever heard of fish sauce made in Chau Doc and Hong Ngu being sold in Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan. There is the other way around, though. The benefits brought about by fish sauce in the Mekong Delta were nothing compared to rice and areca nuts.

However, in the past, people in the Mekong Delta often said that when braising river fish with river fish sauce, one could sense the sweet smell of rice grains dropping, of paddy straw following rainwater to the fields and then the ponds to feed the fish, the smell of combretum and common sesban extending their roots, nestling with mangrove fern, ceratophyllum and water hyacinth as a nest for fish laying eggs. Braising river fish with sea fish sauce makes the taste seem out of tune. As every region has its own heaven and earth, each has its own dishes.

(1) The author departed on December 16, 1879, returned on December 31, 1879, and completed the report on January 16, 1880.

(2) Phu nu tan van newspaper,issue no.219, dated 5-10-1933

(3) L’éveil économique de l’Indochine, bulletin hebdomadaire, June 3, 1928

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