On one of my trips to Vietnam years ago, my mother and I traveled to the seaside town of Danang. During morning jogs on the beach, I'd run through hot spots of a familiar scent lingering in the air. It was the very distinct odor of fish sauce. Until now, I'm still unsure as to the source of the smell, whether there was a fish sauce factory nearby or if it was the fishermen's nets full of their catch for the day. It did, however, make me examine how I took something so prevalent in my life for granted.
It's embarrassing to say, but I had never bothered to question the origins of a condiment that was a cornerstone in my diet. Fish sauce is essentially fermented fish or shellfish (the most popular being anchovy), salt and water. Growing up in both a Chinese and Vietnamese household, I witnessed both sides of the fish sauce debate. My Vietnamese mother obviously loved the pungent condiment and very obsessively so. Vietnamese cuisine utilizes a variety of fish sauces for each specific dish, and my mother was a strict enforcer of this. Spring rolls or clams or lettuce wraps, etc., they all had their designated fish sauce. My Chinese father, on the other hand, abhorred any fish sauce and would substitute it with soy sauce, against my mother's wishes.
Although my Chinese father found the condiment to be foreign, fish sauce is very much a staple in many types of Chinese cuisine, specifically in the coastal cities of the nation. Going further inland, however, the fermentation of fish is substituted out for the fermentation of the soybean. Flash forward to current day, and I have the same issue with my Filipino boyfriend, who prefers soy sauce to fish sauce. It can be an issue when it's my turn to pick a restaurant or bring home take-out. Although, fish sauce also is used in Filipino cuisine, my boyfriend admits that he associates the overwhelming condiment with Vietnamese food.
In his defense, this is a common assumption in the States, especially with the recent Vietnamese-food popularity boom. In actuality, the majority of fish sauces served and sold in the States are from Thailand. Like so many other products from Southeast Asia, Vietnamese fish sauce struggles with both legal issues -- such as trademark infringements -- and environmental problems. The trade and environment database offers a comprehensive summary of the legal and trade woes facing Vietnamese fish sauce.
The best fish sauce in the world is considered to be from the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Because of their famed fish sauce, the island is now seeing its share of environmental woes. The wood barrels used to ferment the fish on Phu Quoc come from a tree indigenous to the island. Fish sauce connoisseurs insist that these wood barrels are what give Phu Quoc's sauce their distinctive taste and high quality.
The Washington Post visited the island last year and provided an insightful piece on the environmental struggles of not only Phu Quoc, but the fish sauce industry in general. It's a good and necessary read for those of you who were like me -- appreciative, but completely clueless.