Vietnamese food is nothing without the imprint of fish sauce (nuoc mam). The best Vietnamese fish sauce is delicately flavored and full of umami goodness. Believe it or not, good fish sauce can be enjoyed straight. Seriously.
You can make fish sauce from various kind of aquatic animals (shrimp, mackerel, or squid, for example). However, the best Vietnamese fish sauce comes from the island of Phu Quoc, where the waters are full of a particular kind of anchovy called ca com. I was there in 2007 and visited a number of the fish sauce factories.
At first, I didn't think that Phu Quoc fish sauce could be great. But I was wrong. I visited the source, spoke to the artisanal producers, and then tasted it. Yowza, it was good.
It's hard to get nuoc mam from Phu Quoc abroad, though the Viet Huong (3 Crabs) brand combines Phu Quoc fish sauce with Thai fish sauce. Viet Huong has a whole line of fish sauce that you should check out.
But for 100% Phu Quoc fish sauce, you have to look outside of the United States. Find Knorr brand of fish sauce in Canada and Asia. Or, try to smuggle fish sauce into the States like Bobby Chinn did for me.
Chinese-Vietnamese food writer Julie Wan went in search of the true Phu Quoc fish sauce for herself. She interviewed producers in Vietnam and last week, we chatted about the availability of the real deal outside of the motherland. Julie's findings came out today in a Washington Post article. Her piece offers rich details on how fish sauce is made in Phu Quoc:
"The Best of Vietnamese Fish Sauce Comes from Phu Quoc" – by Julie
Wan (Washington Post, 4/21/10)
If you're a food geek or freak like I am, you'll find Julie's story full of insights!