I am a fish sauce junkie, have been for years.
I first heard about fish sauce when I was a teenager staying in a pension in France. Several young Chinese from Cambodia, including two brothers named Chin and Mau, were also part of the household. They pined for the food from home, their parents’ Fujianese food, and also Cambodian cooking. As we ate bifteck de cheval and tournedos and other traditional French delights, they’d talk about the foods and flavors they missed, including fish sauce; there was none in the Loire Valley, that’s for sure. I could only try to imagine it: pungent, salty, and from a place far away.
That year Southeast Asia was in the news, almost every day. Cambodia hadn’t yet been dragged into the war, but Vietnam was hot and horrible. We watched reports from the Paris Peace talks on television, all very unreal. And soon after came news of the Tet offensive, in the spring of 1968, and the war got even hotter. Then all that was swept away by the huge events of May 1968, when France came to the brink of civil war, or so it seemed at the time. The next year I headed off to university and those glimpses I’d had into Southeast Asian food faded into the background.
It’s funny how life turns in spirals. Some years later I traveled to Europe with my then boyfriend, whose aunt was married to a Vietnamese doctor and living in Paris. And it was at their table, and in their kitchen, that I finally met fish sauce, got acquainted, fell in love, got hooked… all these words apply.
I met them first at their summer place outside Chamonix, where we sat outdoors in the sunshine and ate fresh spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in nuoc cham, and grilled pork and simmered pork, and beef in many ways, all enhanced with fish sauce. Fish sauce gave life to all that we ate.
Later the boyfriend and I stayed for long stretches in Paris and ate with them almost every day. I learned how to make thit heo, simple simmered pork with garlic and fish sauce, and the famous rouleaux de printemps, and much more besides. And I heard stories of Vietnam that made pictures in my head, complements to the terrible news coming from the still-ongoing Vietnam War.
Thanh, the uncle, was a doctor who had grown up in southern Vietnam under French rule. He traveled to France in his late teens to study medicine, then got caught up in the second war. Five years after the war ended he returned to Vietnam with his wife Salme and young son. But he soon learned that he wasn’t welcome. A year or so after they moved to Saigon, the French colonial administration accused him of treating VietCong, and told him they could not answer for his safety, nor that of his family.
So he and the family packed up and moved back to France. It was a terrible story to me, to have been exiled from his homeland to the country that was the colonial oppressor. But I guess he couldn’t see what else to do, and at least in Paris he could find Vietnamese food and community.
Thanh was pleased when I took to fish sauce, and Vietnamese food, with pleasure (and greed, let’s not forget about greed!). He told me that in Vietnam fish sauce was an essential stimulant to appetite. “If a French person moved to Saigon and didn’t eat fish sauce, we knew he or she wouldn’t last. Fish sauce is an appetite stimulant. In the hot weather, with no air conditioning, the French would lose their appetite if they didn’t like fish sauce. They’d get sick, and end up leaving, often in a wooden box,” he said.
I didn’t need scary stories to make me love fish sauce. I had a hunger for it, as the essential ingredient in nuoc cham, that ubiquitous Vietnamese table condiment, or as a seasoning for savory dishes of all kinds.
Thanh told me fish sauce in its refined clear-liquid form was made from fish and salt pressed in a container. The fish ferments and the salt draws its essence out, releasing a clear liquid: fish sauce. He also said that the best fish sauce in Vietnam came from the island of Phu Quoc, in the far south off the coast of the Mekong Delta. It was available at Vietnamese shops in Paris in the early seventies. But stockpiling becomes second nature to anyone who has lived through war; Thanh kept a stock of half a dozen bottles out on the kitchen balcony, just in case there was ever a supply problem.
Then in early 1975 it became clear that Saigon would fall. The end was near. And so Thanh sent us out to buy up as much fish sauce as we could. “You’ll see,” he said. “Vietnam will be closed off and we won’t be able to get good
fish sauce. We’ll have to use that mild Thai stuff.” Others in the Vietnamese community had had the same idea, so stores were limiting customers to a couple of bottles each. We brought back our few bottles to add to the cache on the balcony, and that was that.
Thanh’s prediction came true of course; it was years before Vietnamese fish sauce was again available outside the country, and Thanh, like the other Vietnamese living in France and the US and elsewhere had to make do with fish sauce from Thailand.
But the last time I saw him, in the spring of 2001, that drought was long past. I was in Paris with my kids, and we went to eat lunch with Thanh and Salme his wife, and their grown-up grandson. Yes now we have good nuoc mam, no problem, he said. That was a terrible time, when we had to do without!
[Naomi Duguid is the author of six award-winning books on food and travel. Hot Sour Salty Sweet is one of the finest books ever written on Southeast Asian cuisine and a primary reason for our obsession with the region. Her latest book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, is out in September.]