Nuoc Mam, fish sauce is a condiment that people from all over Indochina use in their cooking. You may not realise it but when you are on holiday in Vietnam, many of the meals that you eat will contain fish sauce as an essential part of their preparation. Vietnam tour packages have become increasingly popular in recent years and travellers returning home inevitably speak about the great cuisine. Not surprisingly, the sauce is made from fish and after the fermentation process, the sauce is added to many dishes, including curries.
It dates back to ancient times and has been an excellent source of protein to the local population, and of course visitors to Vietnam. Centuries ago, fishing boats did not venture far out to sea and mostly caught fairly small inshore fish. No one knows who realised that small fish layered one on top of anotherin small barrels that are then filled with salt would produce a tasty sauce but whoever it was, they have made an enormous contribution to cuisine in this part of the world. Once the barrels are filled the fish is pressed to produce the salty liquid.
There is a distinct fishing season annually during which the sauce is made. It takes about three months before the liquid begins to come out of a hole in the barrel. That liquid is poured back into the barrel and the process continues for a further three months.
The sauce is clear with a distinct fishy smell disappears once it is added to other ingredients and dish has been cooked; some would say good because it is not a smell that everyone likes. What it does is add richness and flavour to cooking. It is strong and comes in a variety of colours though brown is the most common one perhaps? Arguably the purest fish sauce is that made of anchovies.
Nuoc Mam will be in any seafood dish that served when you travel in Vietnam, whichever part of the country you are in. There are popular brands, for example Phu Quoc, the island in the South of Vietnam off the Cambodian Coast.
Chefs would no more leave it out of their cooking than they would leave out salt, though it can effectively replace salt. Its use is not confined to South East Asian cuisine. It is an excellent addition to a chicken stock and if you are making a salad dressing with onion or tomato, add a little. There is no limit to its use; roast cauliflower with cheese, braised meat and it is a great addition to a ‘’Bloody Mary.’’
Fish sauce can now be bought throughout the world though many who use it do not know its origins. Whether it was an accident or not, it is a great condiment. Fish is regularly salted to add to its life for human consumption. Somewhere along the way, that process has produced a sauce and for that they have the thanks of chefs everywhere.