When I was young...

I had never come to any appreciation for my mom’s favorite condiment in her family kitchen, the fish sauce. This golden liquid was typically stored in a glass condiment bottle that my mom would purchase at a local market for 45,000 Vietnam dong, equivalent to two dollars, which was relatively cheap. When she attempted to show off with specialty dishes, like “gỏi cuốn” (Vietnamese spring rolls) and “bánh xèo” (Vietnamese sizzling savory pancakes), she wouldn’t hesitate to spend a double-priced extra-virgin organic fish sauce shipped from Phu Quoc, an island reputable for its cultivation for the best-quality and distinctively flavored fish sauce. I have always been a curious child, sometimes deemed as the black sheep of my family, due to my quirky attitude towards things I disliked and things considered as out of bounds. Eating steamed white rice, poached pork tenderloin, and steamed winter greens, then dipping in this salty liquid that came straight out from the bottle was not captivating and appetizing. We definitely had more to offer than poached and steamed food and fish sauce. Annoyed by its funky smell and overly salty flavor profile, I used to inquire my mom why we as Vietnamese had to eat such unpleasant food. Instead of replying back, she constantly urged me to focus on eating, as she may have long understood my hesitant personalities. I was stubborn to know more, yet I was never mature enough to realize minor intricate things in our traditions and heritage. She would never answer my question, so my only choice was to ingest the food with much carelessness to bear the smell and flavor.

As I grew older....

I have been convinced to favor many Vietnamese traditional dishes that my mother and many other family members cooked. From incredibly salty caramelized pork eaten with fermented green collard as a casual everyday lunch to the well-known specialty bowl of Vietnamese pho, I learned that fish sauce has always been the integral condiment of these scrumptious foods. My relationship with fish sauce has become less distanced, yet this time, it was rather filled with a positive assumption and a willingness to thoroughly understand. Sometimes, my mother, grandmother, aunts, or relatives would reminisce their stories and elaborated stories about fish sauce to me and my cousins. I came to realize that fish sauce grounded itself in countless historical anecdotes that are oddly complex and intricately personal to each individual, each family, each historical era of Vietnam that many historians or food anthropologists can never explain thoroughly enough.

The most memorable historical stories about fish sauce

.... I picked up from my aunt is the question of why Vietnamese prefer salty caramelized pork, chicken, or fish, and eat it with rice. She recalled that the Vietnam War left thousands of people in despair for food and storage for essential ingredients, such as protein and vegetables, was very limited. Rice was the cheapest source for energy, so it was purchased and stored in bulk. Pork and fish were considered luxuries, and each family of four could mostly afford one and a half pounds of meat for the whole week. “When you only have a few ingredients left, creativity in food sparks”, she said. People spread by mouth the tactics of caramelizing and braising the meat with spoonfuls of fish sauce, and the end products are uncomfortably salty. This inadvertently forced one to eat it with plenty of rice to satisfy their hunger without eating lots of meat to save some for later use. This tradition of slightly over-seasoning the meat in Vietnamese caramelized and braised dishes has been the pinnacle of rustic traditional family meals

What Fish Sauce Means to Vietnamese?

It has never occurred to me that the hatred I used to have fish sauce turned out to be the bittersweet experience Vietnamese people treasured with a positive outlook. Back then, that positive outlook was the hope for peace and settlement so you children could have better experiences in life. Even now when animal protein is more accessible and affordable, our people still insist to never marinate protein with less fish sauce, an implicitly disgraceful method that ruins the beauty of these caramelized dishes. The tradition of overmarination engraved in the souls and palettes of millions of Vietnamese home cooks. This high-carbohydrate, high-sodium, and low-protein meal reflects a country that used to be poor economically, but rich in cultural and historical values and the native humans who preserve this unique heritage through time and space.

I was enlightened.

Yet, when I started my culinary adventure, I first learned the Western culinary techniques from Youtube chefs, not from the mentoring by the maternal sides, like the heart-touching stories that amateur home cooks or even professional chefs valued on the mass media. Despite such difference, with my insatiable passion for food, I still pursued to experiment with dishes from Italian to French, from Southern to Creole cuisines. I was hesitant, or to be more accurate, embarrassed to concoct any Vietnamese dish with fish sauce on my own. The embarrassment intimidated me with all the preconceptions and judgments I made about fish sauce a few years ago. Why didn’t I utilize an affordable, yearly available condiment always present on the kitchen countertop, but rather an expensive, less locally available ingredient, like Parmigiano Reggiano, exported miles away? Why would a Vietnamese who breathed the traditions of his own culture be hesitant to make his national food? These self-pondering questions have marinated in my mind, until I was incentivized to try out some dishes, with the heart-to-heart advice from my mom and others’ fervent evaluation.

My Culinary Adventure Began

After a while, I embarked on multiple independent projects where I did research on many foods’ historical background, process, and evolution, including fish sauce. An important aspect of the condiment, beyond its saltiness, is its briny, earthy, and deep lingering flavor on one’s tongue, called umami, the fifth taste which can be found in amino-acid-rich products, such as meat, mushrooms, and root vegetables. Like the French having their foot-stinky cheese but delectable creamy taste, the Vietnamese almost had the same analogy. As my understanding and physical experiences with fish sauce became more fluent, I felt more comfortable with translating this seemingly awkward flavor profile into multiple refined delicacies. With this philosophy and science simmering back in my head, I decided to join in a food blog competition. I made an Italian-Vietnamese fusion dish called Linguine ai Frutti di Mare, with fish sauce. The addition of this fishy condiment to the marinara sauce, a classic Italian tomato sauce, was absolute serendipity. Since the dish was heavily seafood-based and umami-rich, I believe the fish sauce would enhance the background savouriness and added complexity and a nutty characteristic to the sauce. With the background experience and the luck I had, I won the third prize. I came to appreciate and respect this condiment more than I thought. The fish sauce became my own symphony of taste and personality.

Hung Pham

Studying Abroad 

Years passing by, I left home for months studying abroad at a place that is approximately half of the Earth’s circumference away. As my palette has increasingly saturated with dairy products and high protein diets, I realized how much I missed the unique salty fish sauce and savour by itself. Though the average price of a fish sauce bottle in Asian market here was pretty hefty, around seven to eight dollars, I couldn’t resist telling my friend to get one for the upcoming Lunar New Year get-together. On the weekend of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, I was invited to a local celebration held by Vietnamese students. People gathered rolling up spring rolls, plating an array of traditional specialty foods, and chatting about life, like a casual family meet-up. Conversations were great, the activities were fun, and the food was superb. And that mini bowl of golden fish sauce was waiting for the New Year sticky rice to be dipped. As the surrounding crowded talks saturated my ears, I spontaneously savored that dipped rice cake. I felt pleased and relieved on the whole evening.