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The nuoc-mâm, the unmissable of Vietnamese cuisine

07/07/2020 383 Views

The nuoc-mâm sauce, you like it, you tasted it, you cooked it, you tasted it… But what do you really know about this fish sauce? What about its flavors, with such a special taste that have stood out as Asia’s flagship gastronomic attraction? Coming from Vietnam, the nuoc-mâm sauce is today an integral part of the local cuisine, discover its history...

Nuoc-mâm: a strong taste and a strange name...

Nuoc-mâm is the Vietnamese name, taken as is in French or “sauce poisson” (fish sauce in English). The sauce is not named the same in Asian countries, the Thais speak of nam pla.

The nuoc-mâm sauce, is characterized by its amber color. Its strong and powerful taste is obtained in a particular way... Explanations: after fishing, the fish are placed in wooden barrels to which is added salt, then they are left in fermentation for a year! Indeed, the older the sauce and the stronger it will taste.

Why ferment in a salty medium? Because salt liquefies the bones and flesh of the fish, so the sauce is obtained from the pressing of these fermented fish. The juice is then conditioned for sale and tasting.

Fisherman et famers fermenting fish

The strong smell can surprise and repel at first sight, which is why this sauce is not intended to be consumed alone, it is a condiment! So once cooked and prepared in your favorite Asian dishes, it will be a real treat!

What is the origin of the nuoc-mâm?

Surprisingly, the origin of the sauce is not found in Asia but among the... Greeks in ancient times! Followed by the Romans, it is a similar sauce that was made, called "garum", it was obtained after the salt maceration of sardines, anchovies and mackerel heads and intestines with aromatic plants. Today in France we find a similar condiment in the Nice region with pissalat composed of anchovy purée and aromatic herbs such as thyme, bay leaf, pepper and olive oil.

Fishing boats in the port of Phu Quoc


Phu Quoc: the island of fishermen

Phu Quoc Island is the largest island in Vietnam with a length of 50 km and a width of 20 km, it is located at the extreme south of the country in the Gulf of Thailand and off Cambodia.

Phu Quoc Island Port

The island’s economy is based mainly on fishing and agriculture, but it is also open to tourism. Famous for its manufacture of nuoc-mâm sauce, the island produces nearly 8 million litres of nuoc-mâm sauce per year! The nuoc-mâm from the island is considered the only real nuoc-mâm by the Vietnamese. Phu Quoc is, for them, the cradle of this fish sauce.

In Phu Quoc, there are more than a hundred sauce producers, and it is possible to visit the production sites.

Fishing boats off Phu Quoc

How to cook nuoc-mâm?

An essential condiment in Southeast Asia, its use can be compared to that of salt in Western cuisine. For example, nuoc-mâm is used when preparing food, especially meat and fish, or as a side dish, especially for nem sauce.

For cooking vegetables, nuoc-mâm combines perfectly with honey and olive oil to add a high taste to the cooking.

A strong advantage of this sauce? It can be kept for up to six months!

Phu Quoc Market and its specialities

Nuoc-mâm sauce or soy sauce?

Although essential condiment for the countries of Southeast Asia, some countries such as China and Japan have traded nuoc-mâm for soy sauce.

Unlike nuoc-mâm, soya, which is native to China, is derived from the fermentation of vegetable proteins. It also serves as a culinary accompaniment, but also remains a very salty sauce.

So, ready to taste the nuoc-mâm ?

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