Fish sauce: One man’s equivalent to a midlife crisis Maserati

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In this Walnut Pesto with Shrimp recipe, fish sauce imparts an umami flavor and replaces parmesan in a traditional rendering. Photo by Oriana Koren.

With a simple mission to provide his mom with good fish sauce for her cooking, Cuong Pham purchased a 16 barrel sauce facility in Vietnam. His children thought he was having a midlife crisis. But today, Chef Diep Tran is working with him to celebrate 10 years of Red Boat Fish Sauce and their fermentation of black anchovies. 

“Every Vietnamese person knows not to be cavalier about a bottle of fish sauce,” Tran says.

With a misconception lingering in the air that the powerful smell from the bottle will impart the same taste in the finished dish, Red Boat is pungent but not acrid. Tran recommends starting with a simple recipe, such as her Shrimp and Green Beans, which comes together in 15 minutes. Her Walnut Pesto with Shrimp recipe also uses fish sauce instead of parmesan. Tran’s new book “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce” (co-authored with Pham and Tien Nguyen) is out on December 28.


The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

KCRW: Tell us the story of Cuong Pham, the founder of Red Boat Fish Sauce, and how he ended up acquiring this 16-barrel fish sauce facility when he had no idea how to actually make the product.

Diep Tran: I'd love for Cuong to one day come and talk to you about the founding of Red Boat, as the founder and CEO. Really it started from a desire to give his mother fish sauce that she loved in Vietnam. When he came to the United States, they tried all these recipes that she had, and they were good, but they just were missing something … because no one cooks as great as your mom. … And they couldn't figure it out. 

And then he was in Southeast Asia, and he [visited] Phú Quốc, which is an island off Vietnam. By just some stroke of luck, he was able to taste a real first press fish sauce called “nước mắm nhĩ,” which means it's not diluted with any kind of fillers or additives. And he goes, “Oh, this is the fish sauce I remember, this is the fish sauce that I think has been missing from my recipes.” So he kind of cajoled the maker to give him a few bottles to bring home. And when he gave it to his mother, his mother was like, “Oh my gosh, this is what's been missing.” 

So the next time he was in Southeast Asia, he made another effort, like, “I'm going to go and try to find a barrel house that makes first press fish sauce, and I just want to buy enough for the family.” So he met up with someone who owned a barrel house and … invested. One day, the maker was like, “I'm just done with this business. Here are the keys, bye.” 

So he kind of inherited this barrel house. He doesn't know anything about making fish sauce. When he got back from Vietnam and told his kids, they thought he was having a midlife crisis. Like, instead of buying a Maserati, he bought a barrel house. But he's like, “This is our cultural, culinary legacy.” And he felt like this centuries-old way of making fish sauce was in danger, and that food way was in danger. So he wanted to try to make this happen. And it wasn't until he got it right and he brought it back to his mom and his mom said, “Yes, this is good” that he was like, “Okay, I'm ready to launch.”

What fish is used for making fish sauce?

Phú Quốc Island is so important because [it] is home to a particular kind of black anchovy [that] is known to create one of the best fish sauces. Like, when you talk about Phú Quốc fish sauce, people understand what that means, like “This is a quality product.” And another way that Vietnamese people know that it's a quality product is that it declares that it's 40N — that’s the measure of nitrogen — meaning the level of protein, so it tells you it's not diluted. And you can even go higher than 40. But 40 is like the standard, that's a quality fish sauce.

Are the fish filleted or beheaded? Or are they just thrown into barrels and left to ferment?

The process — and I think this differentiates Cuong from a lot of other fish sauce makers — is that it's a vertically integrated company. Usually, fish sauce makers will sometimes subcontract out to different crews. He has his own dedicated crew, who he trains to catch anchovies [and] get rid of all the bycatch. It's really sustainable. Usually what happens is that crews aren't really fishing for black anchovies. They'll catch what they can sell to the market. And the bycatch, they'll send over to people who make fish sauce. 

His is opposite: “I'm only going for black anchovies.” What he does is he lets the crew have all the bycatch, which is high value at the market, to sell again. But he trains his crew [so that] once the anchovies are fished from the waters, they immediately get salted. And he's very specific about his salt too. So … you start the fermentation process, really, on the boat. And when they come back, they're already salted. They take them out and the barrel house is literally just a place to ferment [in] these huge barrels. Some of them are like heritage mango wood. And they age it for like a year. But they watch it, and they do testings at three months, six months, nine months, and 12 months, and they monitor the quality as it goes.

What recipe do you think is a really good entry recipe for people who are unfamiliar with or even averse to fish sauce? 

I always felt like, don't be afraid of fish sauce, but respect it. Don't spill it, you know what I mean? Every Vietnamese person knows not to be cavalier about a bottle of fish sauce. If you actually do a sniff test for the different fish sauces out there, Red Boat has a very distinctive [smell]. It's pungent, for sure, but it's not acrid like some other lower-grade fish sauce that's been combined with a bunch of industrial products. 

I think the section on kho is a great way to introduce people to fish sauce, because it’s essentially a braise. And so there's this whole repertoire of kho from different regions, different proteins. And when Americans think of the national dish of Vietnam, they think phở, they think spring rolls, they think bánh mì, and that's the stuff that your Vietnamese enemies friend will send a tourist [to] because they know what that's what they want. They're like ambassadors for the cuisine. But really, the national dish, in my opinion, is kho, because it is like mom's pot roast. It's made during Lunar New Year, a commemoration of family so there's a very simple shrimp and green beans kho that's just phenomenal, and it comes together in like 15 minutes. 

When in the cooking process is fish sauce usually added?

It is like when you're trying to cook out wine — you're not trying to cook out the alcohol but you're trying to cook out the rawness of something, just like with anchovies, when you sautee it a little bit, it just takes some of that rawness out. The aroma changes during the cooking.

What about using it in dishes that may not be traditional Vietnamese dishes?

Any kind of pasta sauce is gonna be great with fish sauce. We definitely have a dairy-free pesto that uses the umami of fish instead of Parmesan. I think anything that is seafood, it goes well with. We do a chowder, we have crab rolls. It's great in fried chicken. And we even made a bric-a-brac, caramel Chex Mix with them. Anytime you kind of want a little kick, whatever you can you use salt in, you can sub in a little bit of fish sauce.


Walnut Pesto with Shrimp
Serves 4

Pesto is often made with a hard cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, but here we’ve swapped that umami ingredient for another umami powerhouse: fish sauce. The result is a delicious pesto with a subtle but pronounced savoriness; without the cheese, moreover, it’s a sauce that even those who are lactose intolerant can enjoy. We use a mix of basil and parsley as the foundation of the pesto; the combination of the two herbs make for a wonderfully bright sauce that is as green as springtime grass. The parsley will help keep that color for a few days — and it happens to pair exceptionally well with shrimp.

Ingredients 

  • 1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp
  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 4 ounces walnuts
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons Red Boat Fish Sauce
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 cups (3 ounces) basil leaves 
  • 1 cup (1 ounce) parsley
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 pound spaghetti

Instructions

  1. Add salt and baking soda, and 1 quart water to a medium bowl.  Stir to dissolve the sugar and baking powder.  Add the shrimp and leave them in the brine for 15 minutes, then remove from the brine. Blot dry with paper towels. Set aside until needed.
  2. Place the walnuts in a single layer onto a skillet. Over a low flame, toast the walnuts for 5 minutes, shaking the pan constantly to avoid burning the walnuts. The walnuts are done when they become fragrant. Transfer the walnuts to a plate and set aside to cool.
  3. Once the walnuts are cool enough to handle, roughly chop them and transfer to a food processor.
  4. Add the garlic, fish sauce, and a pinch of black pepper to the food processor. Pulse the mixture a few times until the walnuts are minced, then add the basil and parsley into the bowl and pulse two more times.
  5. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then, with the motor running, slowly pour in 1 cup of the olive oil in a thin stream until the oil is well incorporated and emulsified. Transfer the pesto into a bowl. Set aside.
  6. Cook and drain spaghetti according to manufacturer’s instructions, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
  7. Over high heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a large skillet. Working in batches as necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan, sear the shrimp for 1 minute on each side. 
  8. After all the shrimp have been seared, add the pesto and spaghetti. Saute for 2 minutes, stirring constantly until the shrimp are just cooked through. If the pasta looks too dry, add the reserved cooking water. Serve immediately.


Chef Diep Tran makes fish sauce accessible in the “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook.” Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Evan Kleiman