Fish Sauce: Why does it stink?
This edited article is from Chef Tu, an independent website and is republished on Chopsticks Alley as part of a content-sharing agreement.
As a Vietnamese American, I marveled at the diverse cuisines that exist here in the SF Bay-Area. So did my peers. As chefs, we appreciate the nuances and flavors of almost every ingredient we were exposed to. Except for one ingredient, Fish Sauce. “Fish Sauce stinks!” my peers would complain. They couldn’t fathom the thought of consuming or using an ingredient that reeked of this abhorrent odor.
“As the new generation of craftsmen/women, it is our responsibility to make sure that the traditions from our culture are accurately represented. It is refreshing, yet inspiring to see Danny Tran embrace this responsibility with passion to re-introduce Fish Sauce to Westerners.”
— Chef Tu David Phu
“In Vietnam we take fish sauce very seriously. Fish sauce is our identity. It is symbolic of our main resource of life: The ocean, fish and salt. That is reflected in the cuisine that we eat and our culture.”
— Danny Tran
How could I blame them? There is no doubt that those brands of Fish Sauce stink. There has been a misrepresentation of what fish sauce is supposed to smell and taste like. Like MOST (not all) foreign products, they become Westernized when they are introduce to the Western world. Which can result in a diluted or bastardized version of the original, leaving the the product open to be mocked; all in the name of profit.
I was able to confirm this during a pilgrimage to Vietnam in 2013:
“The Fish Sauce here doesn’t stink. It has a deep dark aroma of soy sauce.” ~Chef Tu David Phu
Determined to get some answers, I reached out to 4th generation owner of Son Fish Sauce, Danny Tran.
“Passionate” falls short of defining the structural integrity Danny Tran has for his family's craft. He feels that “Fish sauce is Vietnam’s identity. It’s the source of our cuisine and culture. The ocean, fish and sea salt.”
Fish Sauce is infamous for being smelling bad. What are your thoughts?
“Commercial Fish Sauce is smelly. Not traditional Fish Sauce. Commercial Fish Sauce stinks because it uses anchovy extracts.”
What is so bad about anchovy extract?
“All extracts are commercial by-products. They are artificial flavors that do not necessarily use any ingredients directly from a source named for the extract but instead uses combinations of ingredients to arrive at a flavor. If there is any ingredient derived from that flavor, it is usually from scraps or waste. In the case of anchovy extract in Vietnam, it's old anchovies that were not fresh or sold at the market. It’s decaying fish, that is dried then pulverized into a paste with additives, such as processed wheat.”
"Most Fish Sauce in Western markets base their production on anchovy extract. Thus resulting in abhorrent, inferior product Westerners identify as 'Fish Sauce'."
How is “traditional” Fish Sauce made?
"Traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce is made from fermenting 70% fresh wild-caught anchovy and 30% sea salt for one year. Like olive oil, Fish Sauce is pressed. The first press is comparable to (what Italians consider 'extra virgin') a 'top tier' product. Traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce companies rate these different pressed levels by protein grams/ liter reflected on the bottle as a number: 40*, 33*, 25*, etc. Western Commercial Fish Sauce quality is so low that the measurement of protein grams/liter wouldn’t compare to traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce companies. They don't post it because it would deteriorate their brand. (They usually scale 12*-14*.)"
How do you feel about the current Fish Sauce in the Market?
"There are 3 types of fish sauce on the market:"
Generic, Processed & Traditional.
"Anchovy Extract = Powdered Fish mix w/ water added, sugar, hydrolyzed wheat protein (msg), etc."
"Processed Fish Sauce but uses the lowest grade of natural fish. It's the same traditional fermentation process but an extra step is added. Water is evaporated from the fish sauce to have higher fish protein ratings. Concentrating the sauce (oppose to using more fish for a higher protein rating) results in the product being viscous and robust."
"Anchovy and Sea Salt that tastes balanced & fragrant (does not stink) with real depth in flavor. ”
Are there any techniques or recipes you would like to share with our readers?
"My product [Son Fish Sauce] is pure and considered the 'extra virgin' presses of fish sauce. I suggest you make slight adjustments when you apply my product to your recipes."
Commercial Brands 12-14* - 1 Teaspoon
Son 25* - 0.5 Teaspoon
Son 33* - 0.4 Teaspoon
Son 40* - 0.3 Teaspoon
40*, 33*, 25*, etc. fish protein in grams/liter.
"Outside of recipes, I appreciate it as a plain dipping condiment. I like to keep it simple since our fish sauce is so delicious and packed with umami. Sometimes I will pulverize Thai chili peppers into the sauce which makes it even more delicious! Alternatively, I would use our fish sauce as a medicinal and take a teaspoon of it to keep my body warm when my family & I dive for fish in the ocean."
Basically, it boils down to this: Fish Sauce, like most products, become a mockery in the United States (things such as the taco, sushi, ramen, ect.) As the new generation of craftsmen/women, it is our responsibility to make sure that the traditions from our culture are accurately represented. It is refreshing, yet inspiring to see Danny Tran embrace this responsibility with passion to re-introduce Fish Sauce to Westerners.
"My Fish Sauce is the Real Deal. Commercial Fish Sauce around the world is not traditionally made. In Vietnam we take fish sauce very seriously. Fish sauce is our identity. It is symbolic of our main resource of life: The ocean, fish and salt. That is reflected in the cuisine that we eat and our culture."
"We [Son Fish Sauce] are the only one selling authentic Fish Sauce. Our company provides a range of fish sauce grades for our product; Outside of Vietnam, no one else is doing this. I want people to know what real Fish Sauce is and that's our product. My family is adamant that our product will teach our customers about Vietnamese heritage and culture that is defined by authentic tradition and the highest level of craftsmanship.”
Thanks to Danny Tran, people are taking a second look at Vietnam and fish sauce. Like most cultures, Vietnam has complexities in it's traditions. It just requires some one to accurately represent it.
If you find this post is helpful, please subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.
Chef Tu David Phu - Oakland, CA www.cheftu.com Chef Tu's resume reflects a reverence for American culinary greats, skilled in classical European traditions. His stints include the nation’s top Michelin-rated restaurants: Chez Panisse, Quince, Acquerello, Daniel Boulud, Breslin, Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern. Most recently, Chef Tu was Executive Chef of Gather in Berkeley. He would like the opportunity to introduce to diners regional Vietnamese flavor profiles. Vietnamese food is so much more than Banh-mi, Pho and Spring Rolls.