Fish sauce (nuoc mam) is the most important seasoning in Vietnamese cooking. Like shrimp sauce (mam tom), fish sauce is a stealth ingredient used by Vietnamese cooks to impart savory depth and oomph. But despite fish sauce’s role, it can be confusing to select a bottle at the Asian market. For years, my go-to fish sauce brand has been 3 Crabs by Viet Huong Fish Sauce Company. But there have been plenty of impostors to get in the way of making the right choice. My shopping has been cluttered with 2 Crabs, 4 Crabs and other knockoff labels and bottles. At a Vietnamese market where the fish sauce selection can be overwhelming, I’m often standing in the fish sauce aisle studying and deciphering the multitude of labels.
One day I realized that the Phu Quoc brand of fish sauce was also made by Viet Huong Fish Sauce Company. Then a visitor to this site said that he preferred 1 Crab brand over 3 Crabs brand as the former is less salty. There's a 1 crab brand too? When I last shopped at the Shun Fat (Thuan Phat) Westminster Superstore market in Orange County, I noticed a 5 Crabs brand. What’s with all the crabbiness and the Phu Quoc brand?
Who is behind 1, 3, 5 Crabs and Phu Quoc Fish Sauce?
Turns out they are ALL made by the same company – Viet Huong Fish Sauce Company, which got its start in San Francisco in the 1980s. Entrepreneurial Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant Mr. Chung started blending his fish sauce in his garage in the Outer Sunset district. His tinkering eventually led to the birth of the 3 Crabs fish sauce. Viet Huong fish sauces all have crazy labels – think of the Huy Fong/Rooster Sriracha sauce label but in full color. My sense is that the company’s complex label is a strategy to deter copycat fish sauces. The bottle’s plastic cap also is a tip off -- check them out before buying as all the Viet Huong fish sauce caps bear the 3 Crabs or Flying Lion logo along with the Viet Huong name in both Roman lettering and Chinese characters:
I bought all of them – the prices ranged from $3 to $4.50 per bottle -- and then did a tasting today. This wasn't like the Sriracha chile sauce taste off I did because all the candidates were from the same company. Even though I'm used to sprinkling fish sauce directly into my rice bowl, tasting them in a row was tough. I swished water in between tastings and tasted multiple times. It was hard to discern the difference but they did exist. My Viet Huong fish sauce tasting notes:
- 1 Crab Fish Sauce: The lightest in flavor. The label says “Hon Phan Thiet” which indicates that somehow it’s related to the islands around Phan Thiet city in southern Vietnam, a region known for making excellent fish sauce.
- Phu Quoc Fish Sauce: Nicely balanced but a hair more intense than 3 Crabs brand. You’ll often find Phu Quoc right next to 3 Crabs brand of fish sauce. I think that they are interchangeable and if Phu Quoc is on sale, I use it instead of 3 Crabs fish sauce. Phu Quoc is the name of an island off the southwest coast of Vietnam that’s known for making the finest fish sauce in the country, hence the brand’s name.
- 3 Crabs Fish Sauce: Is nicely balanced between savory (umami) and sweet, but a touch saltier than I remembered. In years past I could have sworn that the flavor of 3 Crabs fish sauce changed throughout each year, some bottles being saltier than others. Nevertheless, 3 Crabs had a very pleasant flavor overall and remains my preferred brand.
- 5 Crabs Fish Sauce: The label says that it is a “Super Premium” fish sauce. Indeed, it was the most intensely flavored among the four that I tasted. In fact, the flavor was reminiscent of artisanal fish sauces that I have tasted straight from the vat at fish sauce factories in Vietnam. The 5 Crabs brand is not easy to find at this writing. (You won’t find it at 99 Ranch markets, for example.) Traditionally, such types of premium fish sauces would be used only for dipping sauces. If you use it in cooking, back off a bit from what’s normally called for in a recipe.
Actual Vietnamese fish sauce in the bottle
When I last spoke to members of the Chung family that owns Viet Huong, they revealed that their fish sauce company has operations on Phu Quoc Island and in Thailand. The company takes fish sauce produced from those two sources and carefully blends them at their state-of-the-art factory in Hong Kong. Both Vietnam and Thailand are renowned for fish sauce making so in a bottle of Viet Huong fish sauce, you're getting the best combination of Thai and Vietnamese fish sauce. Just pick the number of crabs that you want!
Have you tasted these Viet Huong fish sauces? What are your thoughts and preferences?