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Traditional fish sauce makers in Vietnam refuse to take the modern bait (Part I)

[Reading level: C1 – Advanced]

Vietnam’s traditional fish sauce makers are struggling to keep a centuries-old practice going, but they have no desire to stop.


Le Thi Khuong doesn’t know exactly when the tradition of making fish sauce, nuoc mam in Vietnamese, took root in Ky Anh (Ha Tinh Province), her native place.


She only knows that for generations it has been the job of women and girls in the family to make it.


“My grandmother taught my mother, who then taught me how to make the sauce out of anchovies caught in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) and store it in ceramic barrels,” Khuong told VnExpress International.


“The men – fathers and sons – would sail and fish, and when they returned, their wives and daughters would wait for them at the wharf with baskets in hand.”


Anchovies caught and sold at a wharf in the south central province of Ninh Thuan. – Cá cơm được bắt và bán tại một bến tàu ở phía nam tỉnh Ninh Thuận.

The catch would be sorted and sold, except for anchovies deemed too small to induce any flavor in cooking. Fermenting it with salt, the ancestors discovered, was the best way to juice out the fish’s nutrition and savor its taste.


The process of making nuoc mam usually starts between December and April, during the “anchovy season.” The salt used must by then have been stored for at least two years, “to dry out the acrid taste, before it is mixed with the fish at one to four ratio,” Khuong said.


The mixture is compressed, sealed in either wooden barrels or big clay jars and left under the sun for months. Every day, the liquid is siphoned out through a small tap at the bottom and poured back into the container right away from the top to ensure it zigzags through layers of the fermented fish and distills out all the nutrition.


Women sort anchovies for the making of fish sauce at a wharf in the south central town of Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province. – Những người phụ nữ phân loại cá cơm để làm nước mắm tại một bến tàu tại thị xã Nha Trang, tỉnh Khánh Hòa.

The same recipe has been used for centuries, with small improvisations made in different places to adapt to the local weather or to create a locally distinctive taste.


While Khuong adds rice bran to color the liquid, in Van Phan commune, Nghe An, where the East Sea cut deepest into the Indochina Peninsular, dried sugarcane molasses (or brown sugar) or pineapples are used to enhance the sauce’s sweetness.


In the southern provinces, the salt and fish ratio is one to three as the hotter climate is believed to help the brew stew better.


A worker in Van Phan Commune, Nghe An Province, siphons out liquid from fish sauce barrels. – Một công nhân ở xã Văn Phấn, tỉnh Nghệ An, chắt ra chất lỏng từ thùng nước mắm.

Around a year later comes the precious, first extraction of the fermented liquid, nuoc mam nhi. Dubbed the “virgin fish sauce,” this must have a reddish amber color, and when it touches the tongue, strike the taste buds at once with a burning saltiness, yet leave a sweet zest lingering after swallowed for a while.


“Just a drop of nuoc mam nhi can fill a house with its aroma,” Khuong said. Salt water is then pumped into the barrels two to three times to distil the second and third grades of fish sauce.


Above all, nuoc mam nhi is considered to be of the best quality and hence most expensive.


“Although you can see a lot of cans labeled as the sauce on store shelves everywhere, the premium nuoc mam nhi is in fact rare and scarce,” said Nguyen Thanh Loi, a historian of Vietnamese sea culture.


“It is usually not for sale, only used by the makers’ families or in the middle of the sea, for divers on fishing boats to balance their body temperature,” said Loi, who teaches culture at the National College of Education in Ho Chi Minh City.


Before sonar instruments were invented to detect schools of fish underwater, Vietnamese fishermen relied on gifted divers to navigate for them. And these divers would sip nuoc mam nhi after every dive “to keep their bellies warm”, Loi told VnExpress. “Because their role is so crucial for the catch, the best fish sauce was reserved for them, out of respect.”


While the oldest trace of fish sauce in human history dates back to the Roman civilization, exactly when nuoc mam made its way into the Vietnamese cuisine is unclear. Some records indicate that it was more than a thousand years ago.


A traditional nuoc mam village in Ba Lang Commune, Thanh Hoa Province pictured in 1925. – Một làng nước mắm truyền thống ở xã Ba Làng, tỉnh Thanh Hóa được chụp vào năm 1925.

Precious commodity – Hàng hóa quý giá

In 997, nuoc mam had already been required by China’s Song dynasty as a local tribute to be sent over from Vietnam. The act is mentioned in Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu, or Complete Annals of Dai Viet – a 15-volume work published in the 15th and 16th centuries, compiling and chronicling the history of the Viet people from 2879 BC to 1697 AD.


According to the book, in the first years of Vietnam’s independence from China, fish sauce and salt had become staples subject to taxes alongside land, rice and luxury goods.


A trade limitation was also placed on these items during the closed-door policy imposed against the Northern Empire whenever relations soured. In 1427, the last year of the Fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam, two Viet men were beheaded for engaging in fish sauce and salt trade with the “enemy”, the Chinese from the Ming Dynasty then stationed in the northern province of Hai Duong.


Clay jars used to be used to store fish sauce before plastic ones were introduced. – Những hũ đất sét từng được sử dụng để trữ nước mắm trước khi có những chai nhựa.

“When the Westerners came in, nuoc mam set the locals apart from them,” Loi said, referring to first European missionaries in the 16th century and the French colonizers who followed in the 19th and 20th centuries.


“You see, because of what they said was the unbearable smell, nuoc mam was never really popular among those foreigners, so then it was safe to say that whoever could savor the local fish sauce was recognized a true Vietnamese.”


Fish sauce is the soul of the country’s cuisine today, adding complexity to cooked dishes or poured into a tiny bowl and placed next to the main course as a robust flavor sidekick.


It has also placed itself on the global food map. Most memorably, in his Parts Unknown episode on Hanoi in 2016, the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain showed his special guest, the then U.S. President Obama, how to relish bun cha, rice vermicelli with grilled pork, by dunking it in the “ubiquitous nuoc mam.”


Fish sauce is so ubiquitous in Vietnam that it has grown into a multi-million-dollar industry, valued at $501million by market researcher Euromonitor in 2015. The whole country consumes around 250 million liters of the sauce a year, or two liters per capita, according to the Ho Chi Minh City Food Association.


Traditional fish sauce makers in Vietnam refuse to take the modern bait (Part II)



struggle to do sth /ˈstrʌɡ.əl/ (v): vật lộn để làm gì

take root in sth (v): bắt nguồn từ đâu

anchovy /ˈæn.tʃə.vi/ (n): cá cơm

barrel /ˈbær.əl/ (n): thùng

wharf /wɔːf/ (n): bến tàu, cảng cá

deem /diːm/ [C2] (v): coi là

ferment /fəˈment/ (v): lên men

ancestor /ˈæər/ [B2] (n): tổ tiên

savor /ˈseɪ·vər/ (v): thưởng thức

acrid /ˈæk.rɪd/ (adj): chát

compress /kəmˈpres/ (v): nén

seal /siːl/ (v): niêm phong

clay /kleɪ/ (n): đất sét

jar /dʒɑːr/ (n): hũ

siphon /ˈsaɪ.fən/ (v): hút ra bằng ống hút

distill /dɪˈstɪl/ (v): chưng cất, lấy ra nhỏ giọt

recipe /ˈres.ɪ.pi/ [B1] (n): công thức

improvisation /ˌɪm.prə.vaɪˈzeɪ.ʃən/ (n): ứng biến, cải biên

adapt to /əˈdæpt/ [B2] (v): thích nghi với

distinctive /dɪˈstɪŋk.tɪv/ [C1] (adj): đặc trưng

rice bran /raɪs bræn/ (n): cám gạo

sugarcane molasses /ˈʃʊɡ.ə ˌkeɪn məˈlæs.ɪz/ (n): mật mía

brew /bruː/ (n): đồ uống lên men

stew /stjuː/ (v): ủ

dub /dʌb/ (v): mệnh danh, đặt tên

reddish /ˈred.ɪʃ/ (adj): có màu hơi đỏ

amber /ˈæm.bər/ (n): hổ phách

taste bud /ˈteɪst ˌbʌd/ (v): vị giác

zest /zest/ (n): vị ngon

linger /ˈlɪŋ.ɡər/ [C2] (v): kéo dài

aroma /əˈrəʊ.mə (n): mùi hương

sonar /ˈsəʊ.nɑːr/ (n): sóng âm

navigate /ˈnæv.ɪ.ɡeɪt/ (v): điều hướng

sip /sɪp/ [C1] (v): nhấm nháp

tribute /ˈtrɪb.juːt/ (n): đồ cống nạp

compile /kəmˈpaɪl/ [C1] (v): biên soạn

chronicle /ˈkrɒn.ɪ.kəl/ (v): ghi lại (lịch sử)

staple /ˈsteɪ.pəl/ (n): mặt hàng chủ lực

subject to sth /ˈsʌb.dʒekt/ [C1] (adj): chịu

sour /saʊər/ (v): trở nên tồi tệ (mối quan hệ)

behead /bɪˈhed/ (v): chặt đầu

station /ˈsteɪ.ʃən/ (v): đóng quân

set sb/sth apart from sb/sth (v): phân biệt ai/cái gì khỏi ai/cái gì

missionary /ˈmɪʃ.ən.ri/ (n): nhà truyền giáo

colonizer /ˈkɒl.ə.naɪ.zər/ (n): thực dân

unbearable /ʌnˈbeə.rə.bəl/ [B2] (adj): không thể chịu nổi

cuisine /kwɪˈziːn/ (n): ẩm thực

complexity /kəmˈplek.sə.ti/ [C2] (n): sự cầu kỳ

main course /ˌmeɪn ˈkɔːs/ (n): món chính

robust /rəʊˈbʌst/ (adj): mạnh mẽ

sidekick /ˈsaɪd.kɪk/ (n): món phụ (dùng để làm cho món chính ngon hơn)

relish /ˈrel.ɪʃ/ [C2] (v): thưởng thức (đồ ăn)

rice vermicelli /raɪs ˌvɜː.mɪˈtʃel.i/ (n): bún gạo

dunk /dʌŋk/ (v): nhúng

ubiquitous /juːˈbɪk.wɪ.təs/ (adj): phổ biến ở khắp mọi nơi


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