Yield: 6 servings
FISH SAUCE 1 The profusion of fish sauce can be a bit confusing. In general, the lighter colored ones seem to be better--more subtly flavored and less salty. I just found an excellent one the other day (at Safeway of all places) called "Shrimp Sauce". There's a picture of a shrimp on the label. The label is a bit confusing. The Vietnamese and English on the label call it fish sauce (nuoc mam) but the ingredients are listed as water, shrimp and salt. Unfortunately I can't read the Thai or Chinese on the label, but it has the symbol of "First Grade Quality" from the Thai Indus- trial Standard Institute.
At any rate, it's good stuff. Here's a little discourse on fish sauce from "The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam" by Bach Ngo and Gloria Zimmerman.
"Fish sauce is to Vietnamese cooking whet 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. 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 fro general-purpose cooking. The two towns most noted for their fish sauce are Phi Quoc and Phan Thiet. Phu Quoc produces the best fish sauce, some of which is exported. On the label, the work "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 the brand, look for "Ca Com" on the label, which means that only anchovies were used--an indication of the highest quality for table use."
In the following post, another author presents more info, some a bit contradictory to the above.
FISH SAUCE 2
This is from "The Foods of Vietnam" by Nicole Routhier.
"...It enhances and blends so subtly with other flavors that one can barely detect its presence."
"Like olive oil and good wine, there are different grades of fish sauce. The very best fish sauce is obtained from the first drainage.
The resulting liquid is amber in color, very dark and usually expensive. If you see the words "nhi" or "thuong hang" on a label, it means that the fish sauce of of the highest quality. This type of fish sauce is usually reserved for table use. Sec- ond-grade nuoc mam, cheaper and intended for all-purpose cooking, is made by adding water and pressing the fish after the first- quality sauce has been extracted. The resulting liquid is light and very clear." "Fish sauce (nuoc mam): Nuoc mam is like Thai "nam pla" but stronger..."Squid" and "Ruang Tong" brands are widely available, bottled, in Oriental markets and some supermarkets..." So there it is. Ya pays yer money and yer takes yer chances... I doubt if you'll find any Vietnamese fish sauce, considering the embargo, but the Thai nuoc mam is supposed to be as good. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that, considering the fact that Thailand is just around the corner from Vietnam and has a lot of Vietnamese living there, that the differences would be undetectable.
I'd get a bottle of light stuff and a bottle of the darker stuff (Tiparos brand comes to mind) and play around with them. At one time I had five different brands on the shelf. The stuff's pretty cheap and none of it was what I'd consider inferior.
Now you know as much about fish sauce as I do...