It can be hard making choices about seafood when you live in Ontario: we’re far from the ocean, and most of us have no meaningful connection to that environment or to the people who make their living from it. So, years after I’d learned about slave labour in the Thai seafood industry, I hadn’t connected that issue with a bottle in my fridge.
It’s called nuoc mam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand. In our household, we call it fish sauce, and, recently, our consumption has increased tenfold.
A bottle used to last me a year. But after I’d started regularly making the Vietnamese chicken-wing recipe from the Pok Pok cookbook — which calls for two cups of fish sauce — we began going through a bottle every couple of months.
Every time I finished one, I’d choose a new brand from the dozen available at the Chinatown supermarket — Golden Boy, Squid, Three Crabs, Flying Lion — which range in price from $3 to $7 a bottle. Hooked (a fancy sustainable-seafood shop in Toronto) offers a $22 bottle. It’s one of the few I've seen that doesn't list sugar as an ingredient. While many brands contain only salt, anchovies, water, and a bit of sugar, some include hydrolyzed wheat protein, MSG, caramel colour, carmine, xanthan gum, disodium 5-ribonucleotides, or potassium sorbate.
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In its purest form, fish sauce is the liquid extract of fish (usually anchovies) fermented with salt. Just like olive oil, there’s a difference in quality between the first pressing and everything that comes after. Many of the products containing additives are from later pressings — flavour, colour, and preservative agents are used to mask the inferiority. And many brands claim to be made on Phu Quoc, an island in Vietnam that has a strong reputation for producing fish sauce but enjoys no trademark protection outside the country.
As I learned more about fish sauce, I realized I was treating this top-drawer cooking ingredient as if it were a cheap commodity, selecting a bottle because of the cute drawing of a baby on the label instead of approaching the condiment as I would other pantry items: the good olive oil is for dressing, and the cheap olive oil is for sautéing; the light soy sauce is for dipping, while the dark is for flavouring a sauce.
Monte Won, owner of Khao San Road restaurant in Toronto, says that his kitchen stocks a variety of fish sauces — a strong, funky one for cooking, a lighter one for finishing, and another one just for the som tum (papaya salad).
The last one — mam nem — is actually a different product. I own a bottle of the opaque, pungent, unfiltered cream, but use it sparingly. If we started getting into the variety of preserved-seafood flavouring agents used in Malaysia (belacan, cincalok), Laos (padaek), Cambodia (prahok), the Philippines (bagoong alamang), and Myanmar (ngapi yay), we’d be here all week. So let’s stick to fish sauce.
Food scientist Harold McGee says that the filtered fish sauce used for seasoning derives from garum, which was made in ancient Rome. On a recent trip to Italy, I visited the tiny fishing town of Cetara, where they eat a lot of anchovies. One night at dinner, the owner of a local restaurant came around with a perfume-sized bottle and an eyedropper. He placed them on the table and gave me a wink — the kind of affected wink that says, “I share this only with my favourite people.” I squeezed a couple of drops on my tongue. It was the unmistakable liquid produced by fermented anchovies. I soon noticed colatura di alici, the Italian fish sauce, in a variety of dishes, including a salad of arugula, tomatoes, and balls of fried pizza dough.
Given that one isn’t limited even just to offerings from southeast Asia, picking a fish sauce can be hard. So I turned to cookbook author Corinne Trang (Authentic Vietnamese Cooking, Noodles Every Day, Essentials of Asian Cuisine) for help.
The first thing she tells me? Don’t worry about the added sugar.
“Do not be too concerned, because in Asian cuisine, we always balance salt with sugar,” says Trang. “The amount of sugar or fructose in fish sauce, if present, is really minimal and is there to cut the sharpness of an otherwise salty condiment.”
A first pressing is always great, says Trang, but it’s not essential for a good product.
“The key is to find a balanced fish sauce, not one that is overly salty, but one that actually provides flavour rather than just salt. Red Boat or Thai Kitchen are first pressings, but they’re also more expensive because they are marketed to Westerners, not Asians. You will see these brands in Whole Foods Market, not in Chinatown.”
For a lot of people who grew up on the polluted shores of Lake Ontario, early seafood experiences consisted of frozen fish sticks or the occasional fresh pickerel from Lake Erie. The economic realities of East Coast fishers, not to mention those of southeast Asia, were a world away. But once you learn about the brutal conditions aboard Thai fishing boats, you can’t unlearn them.
Trang recommends that consumers who want to avoid contributing to the human-rights abuses endemic in Thailand’s fishing industry buy fish sauce from Vietnam.
“Look for a fish sauce that has a rich golden colour. If it is dark like coffee, then don’t buy it — it is already too old. It should have a golden honey colour and be crystal clear. Once you’ve opened it, put it in the refrigerator so it keeps fresh longer. Don’t buy fish sauce in large quantities: buy only as much as will be used within six months for the freshest taste possible.”
In the end, most of us don’t have the option of choosing between 10 brands on a shelf: we have to buy what’s available near us. At two different supermarkets in Chinatown, I check the labels on roughly 20 bottles of fish sauce. Most are produced in Thailand (although they’re labelled “Phu Quoc”); a few are from the Philippines. There are none from Vietnam.
Frustrated, I settle on a bottle each of Filipino Rufina and Vietnamese Red Boat. There’s a world of difference between the two: Red Boat has an intense fish profile; the Rufina uses salt to fill the gaps. I’ll use one for marinades and the other for seasoning.
“Everyone swears by the brand they are accustomed to,” concedes Trang. “Sometimes, it is simply because their mother used it in their kitchen.”