The Art Of Phu Quoc Fish Sauce…What Makes It So Special?

When it comes to Asian cuisine, there’s no escaping fish sauce. Used in countless dishes throughout all parts of Asia. Vietnam, China, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Cambodia all have their own particular brands of fish sauce. It is arguable, however that the Phu Quoc variety is the most renowned…so what makes it so special?

The Vietnamese take their fish sauce very seriously. A staple of the country’s cuisine, fish sauce is to Vietnam what olive oil is to Italy. The subtly sweet amber-coloured anchovy extract should be as potently fragrant as it is savory.  The versatile sauce is used in many facets of Vietnamese cooking, it can be used as a dipping sauce poured straight from the bottle or diluted with water, sugar and vinegar for a sweet and sour flavoured dip, perfect for spring rolls.

Much of what makes Phu Quoc fish sauce so good has to do with the island’s abundance of ingredients. Phu Quoc shores are teeming with plankton, the natural dietary resource of the region’s anchovy population. These small fish, of which Phu Quoc fish sauce is made of, come in droves to feed on the smaller plankton, thus making the island the perfect location for producing fish sauce using this special variety of fish.

Using its own grading system, the Phu Quoc fish sauce is measured on how much the sauce has been diluted.

The higher-grade fish sauces are reserved mainly for dips, since the sauce is much more fragrant. The lower quility sauces are often used for cooking and marinades.

The grades can be seen labeled on the bottles, such as those found at the Khai Hoan Fish Sauce Factory, Phu Quoc’s most famous fish sauce producer and the most widely visited fish sauce factory in Phu Quoc.

The highest quality fish sauces are labeled as a 43g/L. The numbers (and the gradient of the sauce) decreases as it becomes more diluted with sea water, ranging from 40, 30, 20 and finally 15g/L.

Although many countries produce fish sauce using various types of seafood, such as squid or shrimp. Phu Quoc uses only anchovies, a tradition dating back over 200 years. Holding onto this time honoured recipe, Phu Quoc fish sauce is adamant in using only locally sourced anchovies known as Ca Com (Rice Fish). This particular species of anchovy is native only to Phu Quoc island and can be differentiated by its elongated jaw.

Using a process that has not changed in two centuries, all factories producing fish sauce in Phu Quoc starts with fermentation. This is where the anchovies are combined with a salt water brine.

The anchovies and brine are carefully mixed in a 3:1 ratio and left to ferment in large wooden barrels made of rattan, a palm tree indigenous to the island. There’s no mistaking the smell…you can get a whiff of these giant vats immediately  upon entering the fish sauce factory.

The rattan imparts its woody flavours into the fish sauce during the fermentation process. Much like how the type of oak used for wooden casks leaves its impressions on a batch of aged whisky.

It’s the materials of the wooden barrels, as well as the island’s tropical climate which help to make the aromatic flavours of Phu Quoc’s fish sauce so unique.

After the initial week of fermentation, the contents of the barrel begin to liquefy. The liquid produced is then drained and circulated back into the vats. This process is repeated daily, until the fish sauce is at the right concentration and consistency. This could take upwards to a year.

After the fermentation process is complete, the extraction begins. The first extraction collected is considered the highest quality of the batch. Due to its purity in nature, this most fragrant extract of the sauce is perfect for dipping meats and vegetables.

The subsequent extractions done thereafter are diluted with sea water. With its less potent and savory taste, this level of fish sauce is used mostly for cooking.

Despite their claims, it has become increasingly difficult to find 100% pure Phu Quoc fish sauce outside of Phu Quoc. It is often mixed with another fish sauce or diluted before being sold by other brands. Also, since Phu Quoc fish sauce is so widely popular, it has many imitators from other countries. It is believed that close to 90% of the Phu Quoc fish sauce sold overseas is not actually made in Phu Quoc, and does not adhere to the island’s strict fermenting guidelines.

Because of copy-cats, as well as Vietnam’s unregulated fishing laws, government sanctions and overfishing, the Phu Quoc fish sauce industry has suffered considerably in recent years, dropping from a record high of 15 million liters sold per year in 2008 to just 8 million liters in 2009.

If you do find yourself in Phu Quoc, it is a treat to be able to try the original Phu Quoc fish sauce in its purest and authentic form. They will even give you a sample in a shot glass to taste if you ask. But as a souvenir, take note that some airlines, such as Vietnam Airlines do not allow fish sauce on their planes or even packed and stowed away in your luggage. This is due to its pungently strong odor and the chance of the bottles breaking.