My North Vietnamese food guru, Carl Han, made an interesting suggestion the other day. "The easiest way to make all of your Vietnamese food taste better is to buy some top-quality fish sauce," he said. "Once you taste this stuff, you will throw away your Squid," he joked. Squid is a popular brand of fish sauce in Houston, and Carl knows it's the brand I use since he sometimes comes by my house to teach me to cook Vietnamese dishes.
A high-quality fish sauce takes a nuoc cham dipping sauce from average to stellar. Even if you are just eating take-out Vietnamese sandwiches or summer rolls, a sprinkle of good fish sauce makes an enormous difference, Carl told me.
It wasn't the first time I heard about premium fish sauce. Red Boat brand was founded by a Vietnamese immigrant in California who returned to his family's village to start a new company. Red Boat is now the best known of the high-end bunch. The company recently took Houston chef Bryan Caswell and a few other chefs from around the country to Phu Quoc Island to see the sauce being made.
At Reef, Caswell now uses Red Boat fish sauce in several dishes on the menu. It's in the cellophane noodle salad and the dressing for the fish banh mi sandwich on the lunch menu, and in the dipping sauces and whole fish on the dinner menu. Next time you get one of these dishes at Reef, ask for a little extra dipping sauce on the side. Or better yet, go buy your own bottle of top-end fish sauce.
I bought a 250 milliliter bottle of Red Boat at Central Market for $6.99. When I got home, I put a dot of the Red Boat fish sauce on a saucer and a dot of my Squid brand fish sauce beside it and did a taste test. Then I threw my Squid away as Carl predicted. The difference in flavor was astonishing. The Squid brand was cloudy in color and swampy in flavor. The Red Boat was clear on the saucer and bright and clean on the palate.
The best fish sauces are made by fermenting nothing but anchovies and salt in wooden barrels for up to a year. The mash is then gently pressed to avoid cloudiness--I am guessing this why the makers adopted the "first press extra virgin" lingo.
The intensity of fish sauce is measured in degrees of nitrogen—milder sauces begin at around 35°N, the stronger sauces are 40° N. I found three different Phu Quoc Island fish sauces at Hong Kong Supermarket on Bellaire at Boone starting at $2.99. The 36°N Bo Cau (pigeon brand) was the least expensive. Hai Au "First Press Extra Virgin" 40° N fish sauce came in a 200 milliliter bottle and was priced between the Red Boat and Bo Cau.
Be careful when buying fish sauce, Carl Han warned. There are many cheap fish sauces made in Thailand, Singapore and the Phillipines. These may be made from several varieties of fish, they are sometimes cloudy or even sludgy, and may also contain MSG and preservatives.
Don't assume that the "Phu Quoc" name on the label means anything. The Phu Quoc brand fish sauce I found at Hong Kong Supermarket had a map of Phu Quoc Island on the label—but when I turned it around to the ingredients list, I noticed it was made in Thailand.