Condiments

Condiments

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
33 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705262
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Phu quoc's treasures: Fish sauce & pepper

The announcement came through 15 minutes before boarding: ‘Ms Lister, Mr Pohl, report to the customs office immediately!’ The customs officers sternly ordered us to open our suitcase. It took them less than a minute to remove the offending items: two bottles of Phu Quoc’s finest fish sauce. Unbeknown to us, the airline didn’t allow this local specialty to be carried to the mainland, lest the cargo hold be fouled by the sauce’s pungent odour from bottles breaking in transit.

Phu Quoc, in the Gulf of Thailand, is Vietnam’s largest island, and resonates with Khmer, Chinese and Vietnamese influences. Through history, the Khmer have been the island’s main inhabitants, with the Vietnamese and Chinese settling during the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite its proximity to Cambodia (which on a clear day can be seen from its northern shore), the French colonial authorities gave the island to Vietnam, although Cambodia continues to claim it as theirs, calling it Koh Tral. Despite efforts by the French to establish coconut and rubber plantations, the island’s inhabitants stuck with two main industries: making fish sauce (nuoc mam), and growing pepper.

Our confiscated bottles were souvenirs from a visit to one of the hundred or so fish sauce distilleries on Phu Quoc. Overwhelmed by the aroma of fermenting fish that hung thickly in the tropical air, we had walked along rows of wooden vats, each holding in excess of 10,000 litres of the condiment on which, along with rice and herbs, an entire cuisine is built. A rich source of the protein lacking in rice and herbs, fish sauce also contains amino acids, nitrates, vitamins and minerals. It is easy to see its importance to a diet in which throughout history, fish or meat was reserved for village feasts and other special occasions.

For centuries the fish sauce of Phu Quoc has been reputed to be the best in the country, if not the region. In the early 19th century, Trihn Hoai Duc, governor of Vietnam’s southern provinces, likened its aroma to the sweetness of cinnamon, and it was so sought after that it had to be shipped under guard to the mainland.

Good fish sauce has a dark colour, yet remains transparent. One way to test its quality is to dip a finger in it, then into clean water: if the scent disappears, the sauce is of lower quality. However, there was no dipping fingers with our guide. He made us slurp the fish sauce straight from tasting spoons, and while we probably wouldn’t have settled for cinnamon, there was a complex, savoury and mouth-filling richness of maritime flavours just beneath that first taste of saltiness.

The basics of making fish sauce appear deceptively simple: three parts fish and one part salt are packed in layers into the vats and weighed down by a heavy lid; it is then left to nature to run its course. The salt preserves the fish and assists in separating liquids from solids during fermentation. The fish is kept in the vats for at least 12 months, and every day during that time, the liquid from the bottom of the vat is poured back over the fish and salt mixture. Yet within this straightforward procedure, a skilled artisan can turn fermenting fish into liquid gold.

The locals claim three things set their nuoc mam apart. First, the fish: a variety of anchovies called ca com, found only in the waters around the island. Second, using wooden vats instead of the earthenware ones employed elsewhere is said to contribute to the taste, in the same way oak does with wine. (Traditionally, wood from the boi loi tree native to Phu Quoc was used to make the vats, but the tree is now considered endangered and the vats are now made with other wood, or in more industrial operations with concrete.) Finally, many Phu Quoc fish sauce artisans add a little of the local pepper to the salt mixture.

Phu Quoc’s climate and soil are particularly suited to growing this spice, and there are almost 400 hectares of pepper gardens on the island. Historically, Vietnam imported pepper from China, but in the 19th century it decided that importing pepper farmers instead might be more lucrative in the long term.

Settlers from Hainan started the island’s pepper industry. Phu Quoc pepper is a big seed with a thin skin, harvested from February to early July when the corns start to turn a reddish colour. Hand-picked from vines growing up to 10 metres in height, the green seeds are briefly cooked in hot water to tear the skin, speeding up the drying process. They are then laid out under the sun on every available surface — be they front yards, roofs or the side of the roads — until they have shrivelled into hard black corns, ready to be cracked to release their aromatic, spicy flavour.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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