Phu Quoc Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is one of the natural products Phu Quoc is really famous for.

There are several fish sauce factories on Phu Quoc Island that are accessible to visitors. Most of them however show only the giant wooden tanks where the anchovies ferment and the fragrant, salty juice gets bottled.

Selection of Kai Hoan fish sauce Selection of Kai Hoan fish sauce | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

Addresses of Accessible Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Factories

Khai Hoan
11 Hung Vuong Street, Duong Dong

Phung Hung
201 Nguyễn Văn Cừ Street, An Thoi

Hung Thinh
30 Thang 4 Street, Duong Dong

Phu Quoc Island fish sauce factory Fish sauce factory, Phu Quoc Island | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

Tanks at Phung Hung fish sauce factory Tanks at Phung Hung fish sauce factory | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

Fish Sauce - Nước Mắm

Fish sauce is a key ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine. Not many of the traditional signature dishes of the country are served without it's salty and savoury goodness that adds umami flavour to the food, thanks to the comparatively high content of natural glutamate.

Salted anchovies ready for turned into delicious fish sauce Salted anchovies ready for turned into delicious fish sauce | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

Fish sauce or nước mắm in Vietnamese has probably been invented right here in Vietnam, but it's also popular in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. The most famous regions for producing the salty condiment are Phan Thiet, Nha Trang and of course Phu Quoc. The most popular brands (which doesn't mean the highest quality ones) are Red Boat, Three Crabs, Golden Boy, Three Ladies and Hon Phan Thiết.

Bottled fish sauce. ready for sale Bottled fish sauce. ready for sale | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

The traditional way of making nước mắm is simple: You put anchovies with salt in large barrels. While the anchovies are slowly self-digesting themselves in a process called autolysis, the salt extracts the liquid from the fish via osmosis. The mixture then is pressed and the amber-colored liquid bottled and ready for sale.

Most brands add additional ingredients and while they claim that it makes the condiment taste better, it's actually just diluting the liquid so it can be sold cheaper. We tried a variety of fish sauces and found the natural product to be pricier but the best in taste (and healthier of course). It contains only anchovies and salt.

Entrance to the Phu Quoc fish sauce factory Entrance to the Phu Quoc fish sauce factory | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

Salted anchovies ready for turned into delicious fish sauce Salted anchovies ready for turned into delicious fish sauce | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

Garum - The European Equivalent

The Vietnamese were not the only culture that discovered the savoury goodness of fermented fish. The ancient Romans produced something very similar to nước mắm and they called it liquamen or garum. Even today a condiment with the ringing Italian name "colatura di alici" is produced in Campina, a historically and culinary very interesting region of southwestern Italy. The process of making garum was very similar to the traditional method of producing nước mắm in Vietnam. Fish slowly digest themselves via autolysis in a very salty environment.

Ship full of salted anchovies Ship full of salted anchovies. Looks weird, but in Vietnam it's perfectly normal. | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

However, while in Vietnam the whole anchovies are used, the ancient Romans only used intestines and blood. Though garum was very popular, contained minerals, proteins and amino acids as well as B vitamins, many contemporary writers found it disgusting. Seneca the Younger, a well-known Stoic philosopher who lived from 4 BC to 65 AD and was advisor of Emperor Nero until he was forced to commit suicide wrote in his Epistle 95:
Do you not realize that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction?

But since Seneca was notoriously old-fashioned, the lovers of the "salted putrefaction" probably didn't care much.

Fish sauce tanks at Khai Hoan factory Fish sauce tanks at Khai Hoan factory | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

And even more fish to be turned into fish sauce And even more fish to be turned into fish sauce | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

fish sauce Fish sauce | photo: foxtravels.net (cc-by-sa)

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Fish sauce is one of the natural products Phu Quoc is really famous for.

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