Fish sauce is to Vietnamese cooking what salt is to Western and soy sauce to Chinese cooking. It is included in practically all recipes.
Prepared from fresh anchovies and salt, layered in huge wooden barrels, the manufacture of fish sauce is a major industry. The factories are located along the coast to assure the freshness of the fish to be processed. Fermentation is started once a year, during the fishing season. After about 3 months in the barrel, liquid drips from an open spigot, to be poured back into the top of the barrel. After about 6 months the fish sauce is produced.
The first draining is the very best fish sauce, lighter in color and perfectly clear. [Kinda like "Extra Virgin" fish sauce. S.C.] It is relatively expensive and is reserved for table use. The second and third drainings yield a fish sauce of lower quality and lower cost for general- purpose cooking. The two towns most noted for their fish sauce are Phu Quoc and Phan Thiet. Phu Quoc produces the best fish sauce, some of which is exported. On the label, the "nhi" signifies the highest quality. When fish sauce manufactured in Vietnam is not available, that of Thailand or Hong Kong is quite acceptable.
Philippine or Chinese fish sauce will not be satisfactory. For table use and available in all Oriental groceries is Squid Brand Fish Sauce, the best one on the market. Whatever brand, look for the "Ca Com" on the label, which means that only anchovies were used++an indication of the highest quality for table use.
From "The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam", Bach Ngo and Gloria Zimmerman, Barron's, 1979.
Posted by Stephen Ceideberg; February 2 1992.
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