Who: Vu Thi Hoa and Vu Van Hai
What: Fish sauce
Where: Sa Chau, Vietnam
Vu Van Hai makes fish sauce in the yard of his house. Urns of finished sauce line up next to vats of aging fish, baskets for straining the liquid out of the fish, and ceramic bowls for separating out the good stuff. When it comes to fish sauce, it doesn’t get any more authentic than this.
Mr. Hai’s setup is common in Sa Chau, Vietnam. The small coastal town has a deep history of making fish sauce. I talked to the experts in Sa Chau to find out how they make their sauce, from fish to bottle, and all the mysterious steps in between.
How It's Made
Fish sauce has two ingredients: fish and salt. The first and most important step is to choose the fish. Some makers go to the market to buy fish themselves, while others use an expert buyer to select the best quality fish. The fish should be fresh, clean, and about the same size. The best fish sauce is made of one type of fish, though some makers mix types depending on what’s freshly caught (and to cut costs). Thirty to forty tons of fish yields about 10,000 liters of fish sauce.
After purchasing the fish, the next step is to ferment it with salt in a big vat. Each batch uses about 10,000 kilograms of fish and 15 kilograms of salt. The fish slowly breaks down over a process of about six months, and it's stirred every day. When the fish have broken down to a smoothie-like consistency, the solids will sink and the liquid will rise to the top. Then, it's ready for the next step.
The "fish smoothie" is then transferred to baskets lined with cloth. The liquid drips out into a tub underneath. If you've heard of fish sauce being "pressed," that’s not the traditional Vietnamese method – there’s no pressing here, just straining. The liquid that's extracted will go on to become fish sauce; the leftover fishy solids will be sold as pig food.
The liquid extraction gets transferred to shallow ceramic bowls and laid out in the sun. The heat of the sun evaporates some of the water out and leaves behind the fish sauce. A salty crust on the surfaces means this process, which takes anywhere from 5 days to 4 weeks depending on the weather, is done. This is the most labor-intensive part of the process in Sa Chau: water cannot get into the sauce, which means moving the ceramic dishes inside whenever it rains. April is particularly tough.
After this the fish sauce moves to a ceramic urn or plastic barrel, where it ages for another month or two at least. It keeps up to three years, and the longer it sits, the lighter, sweeter, and less salty the flavor. The leftover solid chunks of salt can be re-used with a new batch of fish.
The fish sauce is bottled straight out of the barrel or urn. In Sa Chau, most customers are local, so fish sauce is bottled and sold on site. One liter of fish sauce sells for about 60,000 dong, or about $3.00.
This whole process takes 9 months to one year. Big companies cut corners to make fish sauce faster, but fish sauce from Sa Chau doesn’t have any additives. It’s not the prettiest process – and it’s definitely stinky! — but it creates a pungent, fishy, strong sauce that the area is known for. You can’t buy Sa Chau sauce outside of Vietnam yet, but if you visit Hanoi, you might be able to find a bottle at the market.
Mr. Hai told me that there are ways to cut the fishy smell of his sauce while keeping the same quality, but he doesn’t want to. That fishy smell, he says, is the spirit of Sa Chau.
Thanks, Mr. Hai, Mrs. Hoa, and translator Thu Duong, for your invaluable help!
(Image credits: Lisa Pepin)