The cashier looked at me calmly but quizzically when I put all the fish sauce bottles on the conveyor belt. The customer behind me studied my choices and leaned in to ask, “Sister, you like these brands?”
I was at one of my favorite Vietnamese markets in Orange County’s Little Saigon, Green Farm Market on Magnolia off the 405 freeway. It’s a medium-size market that my sister Linh turned me on to. I like the market for its selection of condiments. Green Farm Market seems to get slightly off-beat nuoc mam fish sauce brands that are not (yet) widely distributed. Their prices are also amazing.
I told my husband that I was on a quest to find Son Fish Sauce, an artisanal fish sauce that I’d received from a scion of the family that’s been making the nuoc mam since 1951. Danny Tran told me that he and his family were working to expand distribution, but I hadn’t seen their product in many Asian markets in Northern California where I live.
Son Fish Sauce is produced on an island named Son Rai. It’s a smallish island and known to have very good ca com anchovy in its surrounding waters. The little anchovy is what’s used for premium fish sauce. Fish sauce is just fish and salt so you need to ensure the quality of both if you’re going to do it well. Danny’s family legacy on Son Rai island dates back to at least the 1930s. They own much of the land on the island, Danny informed me via email.
Son Fish Sauce is exceptionally good, among the best I’ve tasted from Vietnam. It has savory depth and nuance at all three (3) levels of its product line: the 25N, 33N, and 40N. The “N” is often explained as nitrogen level but I like to think of it as being akin to the octane level of gasoline. The higher the N-level, the more intense the umami concentration. In general, you may use a little less as the N level goes up. With higher grade fish sauce, you need less to obtain the savory oomph in a dish.
So when I walked into Green Farm Market last Saturday and was welcomed by a display of Son Fish Sauce, I felt like I’d hit the nuoc mam jackpot. I kept loading up our handle basket and my husband grumbled as he got his workout for the day. How do the Son Fish Sauce products taste?
The 33N and 40N are both delicious, with the 40N having a smidgen more gravitas. (I taste fish sauce by the large drops on a spoon.) You could use them interchangeably for dipping sauces, or if you’re hardcore Viet, you’d sprinkle the nuoc mam directly into a bowl of hot rice. They don’t cost much so buy both and try!
If you’re new to fish sauce, the 33N and 40N Son Fish Sauces would be fine for finishing dishes such as a stew, soup, or salad dressing. They won’t make your food stinky with a fish flavor. Rather, they’ll add an extra dimension and flavor burst. In Vietnamese, we call that dam da (“dum dah”).
Made from the second pressing of the fish sauce, the 25N Son Fish Sauce that comes in a larger bottle is not clearly marked as such on the front of the label. I found the nitrogen rating on the side in tiny print. In a Vietnamese kitchen, it would be use for cooking and marinades, though you could certainly use it to finish dishes and make dipping sauces. It is not as intense and multidimensional as the other nuoc mam fish sauce in the smaller bottles but it’s less expensive.
When I checked on the Son Fish Sauce website, I noted that they have a product location map for you to find their nuoc mam. You may also order it online at Amazon or their online store. Note that Son Fish Sauce is labeled gluten free and shellfish free, though it is not Kosher certified like Red Boat.
Another fish sauce score last weekend was Megachef’s brown label. I’ve been waiting since 2009 – when Thai food expert David Thompson introduced me to it in Sydney. Unfortunately for years, only the Megachef blue label has been sold in the States. It’s sweeter flavor profile is friendlier to food, and I was told that its sweetness is supposed to better match Vietnamese flavors.
Coincidentally, my 82-year-old mom recently complained to me that the blue label was too sweet. She is a salty-sweet person so I totally understand her perspective.
I think Mom would appreciate Megachef brown label. It’s earthier and less sweet than the blue label. Megachef brown is gutsier than Megachef blue. The brown label version has been formulated with less sugar for preparing Thai food.
Pim Techamuamvivit, my friend and proprietress of Michelin starred Kin Khao restaurant in San Francisco, informed me that she used the brown label. Andy Ricker of Pok Pok restaurants does too. If you obtain Megachef brown label, you’ll be cooking like Pim and Andy, two Thai-food experts whom I trust.
I’m hoping that more Asian markets will offer the brown label. Note that many regular supermarkets such as Safeway already carry Megachef blue label in the Asian ingredients section. It’s basically the same high-quality fish sauce.
You can use the brown and blue label interchangeably so long as you adjust the sweetness factor in mind when cooking. The brown versus blue label debate is for nuoc mam geeks (maybe you’re already one or you’ll be one someday?). Lobby the company through its Megachef website and maybe they’ll sell the brown label at more places.
Finally, I picked up an unknown brand – 3 Mien (literally “3 regions” in Vietnamese). It was priced competitively, 40N, and contained just anchovies and salt. It was very good, with a slight edge of sweetness at the finish. I think it’s worth buying if you find it.
As I was paying for the fish sauce, I was also telling the customer and cashier how stoked I was to get Son and Megachef brown labels. My non-Viet husband was bagging my groceries when the cashier asked me in a low voice, “Does he eat fish sauce?”
"Of course he does, and he cooks with it too!" I proudly replied. Her eyebrows rose as she smiled and nodded approvingly toward him.