As a Vietnamese American, I marveled at the diverse cuisines that exist here in the SF Bay-Area. So did my peers. As chefs, we appreciate the nuances and flavors of almost every ingredient we were exposed to. Except for one ingredient, Fish Sauce. “Fish Sauce stinks!” my peers would complain. They couldn’t fathom the thought of consuming or using an ingredient that reeked of this abhorrent odor.
How could I blame them? There is no doubt that those brands of Fish Sauce stink. There has been a misrepresentation of what fish sauce is supposed to smell and taste like. Like MOST (not all) foreign products, they become Westernized when they are introduce to the Western world. Which can result in a diluted or bastardized version of the original, leaving the the product open to be mocked; all in the name of profit.
I was able to confirm this during pilgrimage to Vietnam in 2013:
Determined to get some answers, I reached out to 4th generation owner of Son Fish Sauce, Danny Tran.
“Passionate” falls short of defining the structural integrity Danny Tran has for his family's craft. He feels that “Fish sauce is Vietnam’s identity. It’s the source of our cuisine and culture. The ocean, fish and sea salt.”
Fish Sauce is infamous for smelling bad. What are your thoughts?
“Commercial Fish Sauce is smelly. Not traditional Fish Sauce. Commercial Fish Sauce stinks because it uses anchovy extracts.”
What is so bad about anchovy extract?
“All extracts are commercial by-products. They are artificial flavors that do not necessarily use any ingredients directly from a source named for the extract but instead uses combinations of ingredients to arrive at a flavor. If there is any ingredient derived from that flavor, it is usually from scraps or waste. In the case of anchovy extract in Vietnam, it's old anchovies that were not fresh or sold at the market. It’s decaying fish, that is dried then pulverized into a paste with additives, such as processed wheat.”
"Most Fish Sauce in Western markets base their production on anchovy extract. Thus resulting in abhorrent, inferior product Westerners identify as 'Fish Sauce'."
How is “traditional” Fish Sauce made?
"Traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce is made from fermenting 70% fresh wild-caught anchovy and 30% sea salt for one year. Like olive oil, Fish Sauce is pressed. The first press is comparable to (what Italians consider 'extra virgin') a 'top tier' product. Traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce companies rate these different pressed levels by protein grams/ liter reflected on the bottle as a number: 40*, 33*, 25*, etc. Western Commercial Fish Sauce quality is so low that the measurement of protein grams/liter wouldn’t compare to traditional Vietnamese Fish Sauce companies. They don't post it because it would deteriorate their brand. (They usually scale 12*-14*.)"
How do you feel about the current Fish Sauce in the Market?
"There are 3 types of fish sauce on the market:"
"Generic, Processed & Traditional."
"Anchovy Extract = Powdered Fish mix w/ water added, sugar, hydrolyzed wheat protein (msg), etc. "
"Processed Fish Sauce but uses the lowest grade of natural fish. It's the same traditional fermentation process but an extra step is added. Water is evaporated from the fish sauce to have higher fish protein ratings. Concentrating the sauce (oppose to using more fish for a higher protein rating) results in the product being viscous and robust."
"Anchovy and Sea Salt that tastes balanced & fragrant (does not stink) with real depth in flavor. ”
Are there any techniques or recipes you would like to share with our readers?
"My product [Son Fish Sauce] is pure and considered the 'extra virgin' presses of fish sauce. I suggest you make slight adjustments when you apply my product to your recipes."
Commercial Brands 12-14* - 1 Teaspoon
Son 25* - 0.5 Teaspoon
Son 33* - 0.4 Teaspoon
Son 40* - 0.3 Teaspoon
40*, 33*, 25*, etc. fish protein in grams/liter.
"Outside of recipes, I appreciate it as a plain dipping condiment. I like to keep it simple since our fish sauce is so delicious and packed with umami. Sometimes I will pulverize Thai chili peppers into the sauce which makes it even more delicious! Alternatively, I would use our fish sauce as a medicinal and take a teaspoon of it to keep my body warm when my family & I dive for fish in the ocean."
Suggestions and Techniques on Fish Sauce Basics from:
Chef Tu David Phu and Kathy Trieu of Loa.Fm
Basically, it boils down to this: Fish Sauce, like most products, become a mockery in the United States (things such as the taco, sushi, ramen, ect.) As the new generation of craftsmen/women, it is our responsibility to make sure that the traditions from our culture are accurately represented. It is refreshing, yet inspiring to see Danny Tran embrace this responsibility with passion to re-introduce Fish Sauce to Westerners.
"My Fish Sauce is the Real Deal. Commercial Fish Sauce around the world is not traditionally made. In Vietnam we take fish sauce very seriously. Fish sauce is our identity. It is symbolic of our main resource of life: The ocean, fish and salt. That is reflected in the cuisine that we eat and our culture."
"We [Son Fish Sauce] are the only one selling authentic Fish Sauce. Our company provides a range of fish sauce grades for our product; Outside of Vietnam, no one else is doing this. I want people to know what real Fish Sauce is and that's our product. My family is adamant that our product will teach our customers about Vietnamese heritage and culture that is defined by authentic tradition and the highest level of craftsmanship.”
Thanks to Danny Tran, people are taking a second look at Vietnam and fish sauce. Like most cultures, Vietnam has complexities in it's traditions. It just requires some one to accurately represent it.
“Fishy, dry and flavorless,” are the common complaints that I encounter with diners who dislike salmon. In this guide I will give you my chef secrets on how to buy, store and cook salmon so that you will never have to deal with “fishy, dry or flavorless,” salmon ever again.
Salmon season is constantly changing due to the salmon population growth. Different varietals/species are better used in different times of the season. The person to ask is your local fish monger/counter. Find one that your trust and ask you fish monger these questions:
1. What is in season?
2. When was this caught? How and where?
3. This is what I am trying to make…. What you would you recommend?
Check the Quality of the Fish
The eyes should be clear and shiny. Blood shot eyes is a sign of damage and abuse during transportation.
The gills should be vibrant red. Any discoloration that resembles brown is a clear sign that the fish is really old.
The flesh should be firm and bounce back when you press the flesh. Soft flesh is a sign that the fish is old and deteriorating
When checking the flesh for firmness, run your finger along the skin. All market fish should have scales on. Scales should only be removed when you are planning to prep and cook it the same day. The scales should be slimy. It is a natural “layer” of protection for the fish’s body from ocean parasites and bacteria. In essence, fish slime is a form of skin. Without the skin, the flesh of the fish is exposed to bacteria which results into speedier decomposition.
Fish should smell like the ocean. If its starts to smell fishy, it’s a clear sign that its old. Once a fish has an unpleasant smell, it’s nearly impossible to serve. Smelly fish is clear sign of temperature abuse.
Fish is a highly perishable product. They live in the oceans/rivers where water temperatures never exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Consider this when your groceries are in your car. Your car easily can jump 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a warm day. Pre-plan your trip to the market and put an igloo in the trunk of your car to keep the fish out of the heat. Ask your fish monger for ice as well. They will be always more than willing to pack ice for you free of charge.
Do not cover with plastic wrap. The flesh needs to breathe.
Lay your de-boned and scaled filet(s) between two linen napkins. (stay away from rags)
Rest for at least 4 hours if possible in refrigerator before cooking if possible.
Keep it in the coldest section of your fridge (41-45 degrees).
Keep your filet(s) refrigerator until you are ready to cook. It should not sit at room temperature for more than 15 minutes.
How to Cook
Every time I pass through Oakland on my way to work in San Francisco, I am reminded of Banh Mi; not so much because these Vietnamese deli sandwiches are ubiquitous in the San Francisco Bay area, but rather because when I moved to New York, I missed Banh Mi so badly I would actually dream about it. I admit it, I had taken Banh Mi for granted.
Thrillist.com ranked “Banh Mi #7 out of a list of 50 classic sandwiches we westerners eat.”
“The meaty backbone of the banh mi -- often a trifecta of moist roast pork, velvety pate, and gelatinous head cheese -- is satiating on its own, but it's the delicate balance between spicy jalapeños and soothing cucumbers, cilantro, and shredded carrots that makes the Bánh Mì an edible work of art.”
And maybe I am not the only one; after all it’s a three-dollar sandwich. This is what catches me off guard. “Edible works of art” do not cost three-dollars. Period. How much do other sandwiches cost?
Wise and Sons $10-$12
Saul’s Deli $12-$15
Banh Mi Bicycle $8
Other conventional Vietnamese Sandwich shops $3-$4
Obviously, the Vietnamese sandwich is under-valued.
We can all agree that they are delicious. But regardless, Banh Mi are sandwiches. Banh Mi should cost what sandwiches cost. They should be of equal price. Why are they not equal in price when they are conceptually the same thing? They both cost the same to make yet, people aren't willing to pay the same price. Why?
“Despite complex ingredients and labor-intensive cooking methods that rival or even eclipse those associated with some of the most celebrated cuisines — think French, Spanish and Italian — we want our [ethnic] food fast, and we want it cheap….There is ample evidence that we treat these [ethnic] foods as inferior,” as Krishnendu Ray, the chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University, writes in his new book "The Ethnic Restaurateur."
The Banh Mi is just as complicated as, if not more so than than most Western-style sandwiches, requiring more skill, ingredients and technique to prepare. When "we're talking about a traditional closed-face sandwich," says Mark Wheeler, who works in food safety at the USDA. "A sandwich is a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun or a biscuit." According to the USDA’s definition, they are the same thing, a sandwich.
It’s A New Generation of Banh Mi Shops.
¨ My argument is that a Banh Mi is, at its most basic definition, a sandwich. People should pay for what sandwiches cost.”- Jessica Nguyen.
Jessica “never sacrifices the quality of [her] product” and believes that Banh Mi sandwiches deserve more credit. She currently charges $8 for her sandwiches and stands behind the quality and craft of her cult-craving sandwiches. Selling over 1,000 sandwiches in a day, Jessica Nguyen’s Banh Mi is truly “an edible work of art.”