Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vietnam's liquid gold

Phu Quoc is ultra famous for its fish sauce. It produces some 18-20 million litres of the brown liquid every year. At the Khai Hoan company, one of the largest nuoc mam centres on the island, a boat sails out for up to a month to fish for anchovies and will haul in between 20 to 100 tonnes per trip, depending on conditions. The anchovies are stored on board in baskets containing 70 per cent fish and 30 per cent salt; the salt being the best of the crystals from Ben Tre and Vung Tau in the south of Vietnam. Brought back to shore, the mixture is poured into enormous wooden barrels some 15ft high lined up in rows in a giant quayside warehouse; each barrel floats with 15 tonnes of nuoc mam. The Khai Hoan factory boasts 100 wooden barrels and 30 concrete vats. Nuoc mam mixture stored in concrete will have less value and will sell more cheaply. Fermentation occurs when the fish expands and the juices start flowing. Fish bones sink to the bottom of the barrel and are used as fertiliser for the island’s pepper plantations. Water is poured in to stop air entering the barrels as the slow fermentation begins. Near the end of the year-long incubation, protein levels are checked; the sauce must be 45 per cent protein. Later, water is added to bring it down to 35 per cent protein. Then, incredibly, for a sauce much loved, talked about and rolled around the palate, the final product is sent to a government lab in Saigon. The ministry of quality control is responsible for the two day test — by machine — before giving it the lick of approval.

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