In Vietnamese, the word for umami is dam da (“dum dah”). People often use it to measure how tasty something is. “That pho broth is dam da,” you’d say to signal approval. “Use good nuoc mam to make dam da dipping sauce,” someone would advise.
Umami — savory deliciousness – can be built from many ingredients but Viet cooks also seek a magic ingredient to easily create a dam da effect. That’s why MSG and chicken bouillon powder are popular. I keep those ingredients in my cupboard for certain applications, and I’ve also used Korean MSG salt and kombu salt. They are all interesting but not game changers in the chase for profound umami deliciousness.
Enter Red Boat Salt, a quirky, umami bomb. My friend Cuong Pham, founder and co-owner of Red Boat Fish Sauce, recently explained that up until now, the salt has mostly been used by a small group of chefs, but he’d love to get it in the hands of more cooks.
Cuong is humble yet proud of his product, which is made from quality ingredients using time-honored methods. He wanted help to explain the potential of Red Boat Salt. To that end, he asked me to collaborate with his family to present ideas for using the salt. I’d used Red Boat salt for a great umami mayonnaise but his invitation pushed me to do a bit more investigation.
Why Make Red Boat Salt?
I’ve been around nuoc mam for most of my life but had not encountered fish sauce salt until I met Cuong. Why does it exist and why is it rare?
There are only 2 ingredients in Red Boat fish sauce: anchovies and sea salt. When I’ve been on the fishing boats with Cuong and his crew, they point out to me how they pay for premium anchovies and salt to guarantee a high-quality product. For that reason, they aim to minimize waste in their production process.
“Most (if not all) fish sauce producers are not doing the salt like Red Boat does,” Cuong wrote me from Vietnam. “Over 80 percent of the producers sell their fish sauce in bulk so getting the salt off the sauce is not what they do. It’s a long process.”
What is Red Boat Salt?
When Cuong and his team make their fish sauce, they remove some of the salt content to create a rounder, more elegant flavor finish. The salt is dried and then packaged for sale.
Red Boat Salt has a strong briny, funky delicious smell. It’s pungent, and if you’re not used to ingredients like fish sauce or fermented shrimp sauce (mam tom), the aroma will seem intense. But don’t worry because it’s packaged very tightly for shipping!
Hanoi-based chef Didier Corlou has referred to this uncommon type of salt as fleur de sel de nuoc mam. In this Viet language article, they refer the salt as hạt nước mắm — literally fish sauce grains which conceptually seems like a contradiction — how can a liquid be a grain? Never mind. I’m just calling it Red Boat Salt.
Red Boat Salt Characteristics
After spending a solid week playing with Red Boat Salt, I realized that it can be a magical ingredient when you keep the following in mind:
Red Boat Salt expresses its umami goodness in a latent manner. When you season food with it, you may expect an immediate hit like with regular salt. But you have to wait. It needs a couple minutes before its flavors bloom.
Red Boat Salt has a salty-umami flavor profile. Read the super tiny print and notice that the salt is about 50 percent less sodium than regular table salt or fine sea salt but roughly the same as kosher. That’s to say, per 1/4 teaspoon:
Red Boat Salt – 270mg sodium
La Baleine fine sea salt – 550mg sodium
Morton iodized salt – 590mg sodium
Diamond Crystal coarse kosher salt – 280mg sodium
So despite looking like a beige version of regular salt, Red Boat isn’t that salty. However, it makes up the difference by having umami. That’s why I describe the flavor as salty-umami.
Make a Red Boat Umami Salt Blend
To easily use Red Boat Salt, create an umami salt blend. Your palate is accustomed to regular salt and expects a certain flavor hit. Since Red Boat Salt is lower in sodium than normal salt, bring its sodium level up by mixing Red Boat with your regular salt. I blend RB with fine sea salt because the grain sizes are similar and RB started from the sea.
I tried two ratios of Red Boat Salt to regular salt:
1:1 (mild and great if you’re on a lowish sodium diet)
4:3 (moderate, pleasant salty-savory flavor)
For consistency, I weighed the salts — a tablespoon of fine sea salt or Red Boat salt weighs 18 grams. If you use kosher salt, 18 grams weighs close to 2 tablespoons. Whatever ratio you use, you’ll have created your own umami salt. How cool and easy is that?
Once you have your personal umami salt blend, keep it in a jar and use like you would regular salt in your cooking. It’s particularly nice for when you’re trying to minimize moisture — like fried rice. When used as a finishing salt to perk things up with dam da savory depth, let the salt do its magic to bloom and express itself for 1 to 2 minutes. Then dive in.
For fun, made an umami steak dinner with asparagus and panfried potatoes. All the ingredients were seasoned by RB salt and it was remarkably delicious.
Where to Buy Red Boat Salt
Your best source is online at Amazon, where the salt is currently available in in 8.8-ounce packages. This vendor is approved by Red Boat. Or, directly purchase from Red Boat and get some of the Phu Quoc peppercorns too. Cuong and his family are also working on distributing smaller packages of their salt to brick and mortar retailers.
Like any salt, Red Boat’s keeps for a long a time so your umami investment will pay out well in terms of dividends.
If you’ve used Red Boat salt, what was your experience?