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Phu Quoc fish sauce

Wed, 03 Sep 2014 . Last updated Thu, 25 Jun 2015 08:48

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Phu Quoc fish sauce is the most famous fish sauce of Vietnam. Once setting foot on Phu Quoc Island, visitors should take their time to visit the fish sauce facilities and experience the interesting process making fish sauce here.

What wine is to French cuisine, what olive oil is to Italian cuisine, fish sauce is definitely an essential part of Vietnam cuisine. This is an indispensable part in the meal of each Vietnamese family. Vietnam has the population of 90 million people, they consume about more than 200 million liters of fish sauce every year. This is the reason why a lot of people say when coming to Vietnam, you can smell the taste of fish sauce once you get off the plane. 

We are in Phu Quoc, this island in the southern Vietnam, one of the main produces of fish sauce in whole Vietnam. Today, this morning we are in An Thoi harbor and it is absolutely buzzing along the coastline. All fishing boats come here at this time and bring much seafood. You can see the fishing has become an indispensable part of local people. Located on the southeast Phu Quoc coastline, An Thoi town is one of the traditional fishing ports of this island.  Currently, this serves fishing boats and small cargo boats of local people. The sea port is one of two most important fishing grounds of Phu Quoc Island, providing anchovy with the best quality to make Phu Quoc fish sauce.

I am so lucky when having the chance to join in a fishing trip from Phung Hung with Mr. Son - an experienced captain in An Thoi port. When walking across the plank onto the boat which was, I am quite rocky and scary, I feel this way that we are going to get seasick. I feel I will be seasick immediately but mostly, everything is good.

Mr. Son was born by Cambodian father and Vietnamese mother. He has lived in Phu Quoc since 1950s. His family started to make traditional fish sauce and establish Phung Hung fish sauce production in 1960. Since then he has not only gone fishing anchovy but also developed his family’s traditional trade. After 30 year of being a captain, Mr. Son has the ability to detect the signal of large schools of fish just by using his eyes and his experience on the waters. Now he has become one of most experienced captains in An Thoi fishing port.

I locate the fish using my eyes. I understand how the water currents depend on the winds and where the fish will swim to. I don’t note that knowledge down. It’s all engraved in my mind.

In Phu Quoc, they have a strict rule how the women should never be on the fishing boat, so the fishermen have to do everything themselves from sewing the fishing nets to cooking. A near shore fishing like this one often get started at 3a.m of the previous day and finishes at 9am of the following day. So activities of the fishermen must also adapt the daily routines on the boat. They cook and eat meal at 3p.m and take a rest, at 6p.m the fishing begins and they work all the night until the morning. This was an interesting experience because I got to spent time along with the fishermen and see how they stayed on the boat.

Eating the meal with Mr. Son here, I feel like the calm before the storm. We have just been resting and while we still have time to sit and enjoy the meal. I can feel the anticipation of the work that is about started. On the boat is quite narrow, we are using the comfortable and clean surface of the ice boxes. The sea is near and the seafood is probably the precious time I ever had.

We are on fishing boat in Phu Quoc Island. The fishing industry has been existed on this island more than 200 years now. One thing that makes the prosperous development is abundant fish resource. There is a special seaweed areas in Phu Quoc and that is a perfect breeding ground for the anchovies with the highest quality to make the best fish sauce. The team work of fishermen is really amazing. Everybody knows what to do and exactly when to do it. They look after together and work together for a long time. They seemed happy when living in this atmosphere.

Fishing is really hard work; the fishermen have to work nonstop to keep drawing up the net. Everyone is eager to know how many fish in the net. I think their work is dangerous and hard. I think with the guy in the sea, when he is far away the shore I wonder he is nervous.

This is the second drawing up in this fishing trip, Mr. Son hopes that this time will get about 1 tons of fish. The big fishes and quarrels are taken out and may be enough 50% of anchovy to be salted and preserved on the boat here and turned into fish sauce in the morning. I see many types of fishes there.

Tonight, we didn’t catch enough anchovies to make fish sauce. There was too much bycatch. Compared to the past, the number of anchovies has declined a lot. There are just too many fishermen who seek out anchovies.

After 12 hour of work and 4 times drawing up the net, we still have enough anchovies to make for a barrel of fish sauce. Hopefully, the 5th time will bring the small luck for us. This is the fifth and the last net from the night, Mr. Son said that previous 4 times are not enough anchovies to put the salt on and preserve them.  This could be the sign that the number of anchovy in Phu Quoc is decreasing year by year. 

During the fishing season, lasting from the end of July to December, the fishermen often catch the anchovies and separate them from other fishes and immediately start combining them with the salt according to the ratio of 1:3 to preserve under the deck. For fish sauce has the good aroma and taste, the anchovies have to mix with salt immediately after catching. During our last fishing, we caught about 2 tonnes of fish, 70% of that was anchovies. That‘s good enough to make fish sauce.

With 170 barrels of fish sauce, Phung Hung is one of the largest fish sauce makers on Phu Quoc Island. Like other families, their success has been experienced many ups and downs.

- When I was about 12 years old, I found that fish sauce making was such hard work. At that time, my family’s business was small, with just about 10 barrels. I never thought that I would pursue my family business.

- It would be nice if my children decide to keep up the family business. If they don’t, there’s no way to force them. Seeing that we can earn a good living from trade, they will probably keep it up, though. It would be a waste if they quit the trade. After the son of Mr. Son graduated from a university in Singapore, he came back to help his father take over the fish sauce facility. Now Mr. Son only worries about the fishing and finding enough anchovies to fish sauce process. There are some 100 fish sauce facilities in Phu Quoc, with the total productivity of more than 30 million liters per year. Phu Quoc fish sauce is made from fermenting anchovies in large barrels in 3 meters diameter and 5 meters high. They hold about 13 tons of fish in salt. These barrels are made from jackfruit wood and other tropical woods to tie the delicious taste of fish sauce. Each barrel can be used up to 60 years.

After finishing the fishing trip, the fishes scented salt are transported directly to Phung Hung facility, immediately placed into the wooden barrels with a chemical-free fermentation, the making process will begin. The anchovies look like different before they start to make fish sauce. This timber is “cay nhum” or nhum tree.  Now we are putting it on the fish sauce barrel. This tree only grows in Phu Quoc Island. It is chosen because it is ability to stand the saltiness during 1 year. In addition, it also creates the flavor of fish sauce.

I have experienced 24 hour of hard work, from catching fish to place them into the barrels here, I have finished worked. The fishes will be kept in these barrels at least 1 year. After all of the hard work, this is the finally result of the fish sauce making process. So one of the barrels like we made, after 1 year we get 3 to 4 thousand liters of fish sauce.


Source: VTV4 – 

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