by Mike Sula
"Nope. Whole undiluted fish sauce, I am." I sniff my armpit, wrinkle my nose, and nod. "Aiee! Pure concentrate."
Because asserting one's identify by smelling like the by-product of fish that have fermented and liquefied over months in punishing tropical heat is a lot more likable than say, walking around with the Stars and Bars silk-screened across one's T-shirt, Pham is soon sharing a smoke with his new pals.
In a similar way, if more Americans had an idea what good Vietnamese fish sauce was like, we'd be better friends with the Vietnamese. But while bottles of Thai nam pla and Filipino pastis are pretty easy to come by stateside, Vietnamese nuoc mam, isn't, which is too bad, because it has a sweeter, deeper, smoother, more fifth-taste-flattering flavor than any other.
Many discerning folks consider fish sauce manufactured on the little island of Phu Quoc, off the southwestern tip of Vietnam, to be the finest in the world. On this largely undeveloped little paradise some 95, mostly small producers make nuoc mam from the anchovy Stolephorus commersonnii, caught just off its coasts, salted and packed into barrels and aged for about a year. It's difficult to pass by the larger factories on the island without clutching your gut and covering your face, but the nuoc mam itself is extraordinary—mellow, yet somehow fathomless in its flavor. Most wouldn't cook with a fish sauce this good, instead using it the way you would a superior olive oil, as a garnish, or in dressings and dipping sauces.
On Phu Quoc you can buy it direct from the factories but, unless you're leaving the island by boat you can't take it home. It's forbidden—for the sake of your fellow passengers' luggage—to fly with fish sauce (or durian) in Vietnam. This summer I tried to smuggle a bottle of primo, highly concentrated stuff off the island, but the cagey baggage screeners at Duong Dong Airport know all the tricks, and confiscated it.
It's also sold right outside the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, but even in the markets it's difficult to find, because many unscrupulous manufacturers are not above slapping the Phu Quoc name on inferior or adulterated stuff and passing it off it as the real thing. Efforts to establish it as a worldwide trademarked appellation are under way, but even in the United States bunko Thai-manufactured fish sauce labeled "Phu Quoc" abounds.
For years conventional wisdom has been that you can't get real thing here, in part because of the 19-year U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam (which ended in 1994). But in fact, it's been right here under our noses in Chicago for at least the last four years. I was just looking in the wrong place. If you go to any of the Vietnamese markets around Argyle and Broadway you see the familiar Thai brands such as Squid, Tiparos, and those masquerading as Vietnamese but really Thai-Chinese in origin and profile (Three Crabs, Flying Lion). Oddly, for something so critical to the Vietnamese diet even these bottles are usually stocked on lower shelves, in the rear of the store.
But a few months ago, while scrutinizing the labels on the selection at Hmart, I was struck to find a brand I'd never seen before: Double Golden Fish Brand Phu Quoc Fish Sauce, which unlike the Thai brands pictured above actually did seem to come from Phu Quoc itself. Manufactured by the Thanh Ha Fish Sauce Company, with offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Duong Dong, Phu Quoc, it's been on the shelves at the Niles store since it opened in 2006. There's a regular variety, and a superior grade, which is priced at a shocking $3.49, some $10 cheaper than another brand found on Amazon. The bottle features a tiny sticker showing its compliance with European Union manufacturing and exporting standards and verifying the use of the proper anchovy caught in the appropriate fishing area. An e-mail from the company's Uy Danh confirmed that it has been shipping this nuoc mam since 2002 to a Maryland wholesaler that bottles it under the Double Golden Fish label. Danh assured me that this is 100 percent Phi Quoc "nuoc mam nhi," meaning the first stuff to come out of the barrel, not unlike the "first cold pressing" designation applied to good olive oil.
Even if you aren't practiced in cooking Vietnamese food there are general applications for this stuff when you want to boost a savory profile. Splash some in tomato sauce and you'll never detect anything more than a deepening of its flavor. And despite what Andrew Pham might say, unless you're going to bathe in it, there's no need to worry about your armpits.