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A Brief History of Fish Sauce

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By most accounts, fish sauce is a product of Southeast Asia, though the dish can be traced back to China and the Mediterranean. It typically consists of fermented anchovies and salt brine, though other ingredients are sometimes included. Fish sauce is a staple in many cultures, but what is it really made of?

The vietnamese word nuoc mam is derived from the Sanskrit word for sour and is used to refer to the fish sauce which is the essential ingredient in nuoc mam. The fish sauce was originally made by fishmongers who sold the fish for the purpose. However, there is a legend that the fish sauce was invented by the vietnamese emperor Trieu Da when he had difficulties in keeping his cooks full and happy after the court ban on rice wine (made from fermented rice) in the 7th century.

Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in most Southeast Asian kitchens. The garlicky, savory liquid is used to flavor curries, noodle dishes, dips and other food items. Despite its popularity, few Westerners are familiar with fish sauce. But if you are a fan of Asian food, there is no better way to introduce yourself to one of Southeast Asia’s most important exports than to chow down on some of this fermented fishy goodness.

Something rhythmic and exact was twisting and twirling out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t until I was right in front of the Saigon street stall that I understood what was going on: the proprietor, a kind guy in his 40s who usually smiled as I passed, was packing nuoc cham, a fish sauce-based condiment prepared with water, lime juice, and sugar. In addition, he was slicing thin slivers of pickled carrots into the little bags stacked in front of him.

What he was doing was commonplace at the city’s street markets and restaurants. Many Southern Vietnamese recipes use nuoc cham, or pure fish sauce, nuoc mam, and fish sauce is eaten by 95 percent of Vietnamese families.

His movements, though, were hypnotic, as he poured the fishy liquid into small plastic bags, carefully placed thin sliced carrots into the mix, and then gracefully curled his wrist for three twists of an elastic band. Each symmetrical packet was created in three seconds and then waited to be put to a takeout meal.

what is the history of fish saucePackets of fish sauce, ready to eat.

The Beginnings of Fish Sauce

Others have told me that fish sauce, like stinky tofu and durian fruit, and the vivid purple fermented shrimp paste that comes with Vietnamese bun rieu soup, is one of those flavors that takes some getting accustomed to for Western palates. Its pungent, fishy odor dispels any doubts regarding its ingredients.

Known as nam pla in Thailand and ngan bya yay in Myanmar, as well as various local names and variants in Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines, one thing is certain: fish sauce plays an important part in flavoring cuisine throughout Southeast Asia.

It’s become my go-to ingredient when I’m in a new place, and I use it in everything from homemade soups and curries to chicken marinates and salads, and even omelettes, to give my food a flavor of Vietnam. It reminds me of my time in Southeast Asia as much as lime, garlic, and chiles do.

fish sauce historyBanh cuon on the street with fish sauce for dipping.

Cuong Pham, the creator of Red Boat fish sauce, has said, “This is more than simply a condiment.” “It’s like gold,” says the narrator.

The sauce is composed entirely of two ingredients: fish (typically anchovies) and salt, which are fermented together for months. Despite the fact that some fish sauce labels include squid, shrimp, or even a guy carrying a huge shrimp over his shoulder (my personal favorite), the components are the same: fish and salt. Both are weighed down and put in large vats – typically three parts fish to one part salt – to keep the fish from floating to the top when fermentation starts.

Once the liquid starts to leak out of the fish, it is drained and returned to the vat for the entire fermentation process, which lasts “long enough for it to achieve concentration, but not long enough for hydro-sulfuric acid to emerge, spoiling the taste.” This procedure usually takes nine to one year, with the vats lying in the sun as the fish sauce develops.

In Ancient Times, Fish Sauce

Fish sauce’s roots may be traced back to the Green and Roman eras, when it was called as gàros or garum, respectively. Garum was referenced in Roman literature as early as the 4th century BC, according to Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino, and remnants of garum factories have been discovered in Spain, Portugal, and Northern Africa.

Roman fish sauce was used as a salt replacement and a sauce base in a range of dishes, including those from Apicus’ cookbook De Re Coquinaria, which is accessible for free online. In ancient times, Pompeii was known for its garum manufacturing. The many references in ancient literature and recipes suggest that it was used on a daily basis within the ancient Mediterranean region.

thai fish sauceA selection of fish sauce from a Thai store – there were many more!

Declan Henesy writes about fish sauce in the ancient world in his article:

The Carthaginians were also early producers and merchants of fish sauce, making it near the Tunisian coast of Lake Tunis. A Punic shipwreck discovered off the coast of Ibiza in the 5th century BCE may have carried a cargo of fish sauce preserved in amphorae manufactured in Gades (modern-day Spain) and Tingi (modern-day Morocco). Fish sauce is mentioned often in early Graeco-Roman literature by authors such as Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Aeschylus.

With the exception of colatura di alici, a fish sauce still produced in factories in the hamlet of Cetara in Italy’s Salermo area, fish sauce is almost entirely gone from contemporary Italian cuisine.

Why did the Romans abandon the use of fish sauce?

Garum, according to some historians, went out of favor because salt became too difficult to get by when the Roman Empire broke apart. Fish sauce manufacturing was delayed due to high salt tariffs, which increased the cost of manufacture. Furthermore, without Roman protection of the coastlines, pirates started to cut off commerce and disrupt established trade routes as the empire declined. One thing is certain: when the Roman empire fell apart, so did fish sauce manufacturing, which eventually came to a stop.

What about modern-day Asian fish sauce? Is it the same as the ancient Roman garum?

Mark Kurlansky claims in his book Salt: A World History that the two fish sauces did not originate at the same time, but rather at different periods in the East and West.

“The sauce seems to be a concept that developed separately in the East and the West, as some historians think of the domesticated pig. Though the Vietnamese may have acquired it from Chinese soy sauce in ancient times, when the Chinese fermented fish with beans, the Asian sauce is believed to have originated in Vietnam.”

Kurlansky goes on to say that when the French arrived in Vietnam, they were shocked to discover that the Vietnamese ate “rotten fish.” The Pasteur Institute in Paris then spent years researching the fermentation of nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce). A little quantity of this condiment packs a powerful flavor punch into any dish, almost magically.

Food historian Laura Kelley, on the other hand, claims on her blog that garum was the forerunner of modern-day fish sauce, spreading through trade routes from West to East.

“So, once again, we can identify a commodity that traveled from west to east on the Silk Road and was enthusiastically embraced by Asians. As they went east, the recipes for garum evolved and adapted, becoming nuoc mam and nam pla, depending on cultural tastes and what the Asian seas had to offer. Stay tuned to this channel to discover more about garum production in the ancient world and in Chez Kelley’s kitchen as archaeologists and culinary scientists strive to validate these flows and connections.”

Returning to Declan’s article, he points out that although some historians believe fish sauce was brought to Asia through the Silk Road, others believe it was created independently.

Either or both of these statements may be correct. A team of experts analyzed samples of garum collected from vessels preserved at Pompeii in 2010 CE. They discovered that Roman fish sauce from the first century CE had a flavor profile that was almost similar to that of modern-day Southeast Asian fish sauce.

Fish sauce is now a mainstay throughout Southeast Asia, with the version from the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc becoming the first product in the region to be certified by the EU Commission as a Protected Designation of Origin. I like Red Boat Fish Sauce and was delighted to discover it in Montreal when I returned. In my refrigerator, there’s a large bottle. It’s also gluten-free, which isn’t often the case with fish sauce nowadays.

While production is dependent on fish availability, it seems to be on the increase in the West at the present, used in Asian cuisines as well as to add flavor to more conventional mainstays.

I honestly can’t eat without it.

While we travel for the people and culture, the tales and the cuisine, we often overlook the origins of certain components such as fish sauce or jalapeño peppers.

If you like this brief introduction of fish sauce, you may be interested in reading:

• Salt, by Mark Kurlansky: “The only rock we eat, salt has influenced civilization from the beginning, and its tale is a dazzling, often unexpected aspect of humankind’s history,” according to the book’s description. Salt has impacted the development of trade routes and towns, sparked and funded wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions as a material so precious it functioned as currency.”

• Veronica Meewes’ The Fish Sauce Cookbook. It’s pretty self-explanatory, right?

• Dan Jurafsky’s essay on the history of ketchup (spoiler: it also involves fermented fish)

A fish sauce substitute may be found in this vegan fish sauce recipe for people who are vegan or don’t enjoy the flavor.

Good luck with your meal!

-Jodi

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This article was first published on the G Adventures blog, where I authored it.

One of the world’s greatest foods is something that many of us have probably never heard of, let alone tried. Alongside ketchup and peanut butter, fish sauce is one of the most commonly used condiments in the world, and is especially popular in southeast Asia.. Read more about vietnamese fish sauce origin and let us know what you think.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who made the first fish sauce?

The first fish sauce was made by the ancient Egyptians.

Did fish sauce in Vietnam come from ancient Rome?

No, fish sauce in Vietnam did not come from ancient Rome.

What was a fish sauce called?

Fish sauce is a condiment made from fermented fish, salt, and water.

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