Fish Sauce . . . The Vietnamese Ketchup?

This is my latest article in the Tuoi Tre newspaper here in Vietnam.

If the link doesn’t work for you, below is the text:

One of the greatest joys of living abroad is constant exposure to food ingredients so different from back home.  Some tantalize our senses and bring pure eating joy to the table.  Others make us wonder what are they thinking with that.  Perhaps fish sauce piques our curiosity most as it is unlike anything found in our western world.

One whiff of this pungent liquid is enough to strike fear in all but the most intrepid palates.  What is it about fish sauce that scares us so bad?  Is it the odor or simply just the name?  I know we westerners are not so keen on strong smells or anything fermented in giant barrels under the hot sun.  Our tastes seem to run a bit more on the subtle side.

Before we continue on, I will let all of you self-professed non fish sauce types in on a little secret.  Remember that fragrant Vietnamese takeaway food you had been enjoying all those years before moving here to its native home?  Well, that delicious flavor had to come from somewhere, even in Britain or the US.  Yes, you know where I am going with this…fish sauce!

Fish sauce may as well be labeled “liquid gold” as it is such a valuable component in the Vietnamese kitchen.  In food, on food, in sauces or just alone, nuoc mam, as it is properly known, takes center stage in just about every recipe served from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south.  Perhaps the closest equivalent rising to such ubiquitous proportions in the west would be the tomato.

Just as fish sauce is splashed across the pages of every Vietnamese cookbook, this simple red orb finds a home in comfort foods like meat loaf, sauces for pizza and pasta, and condiments such as salsa, barbecue sauce, and the ever important ketchup.  I know in the United States we can pair ketchup with eggs, fish and just about any food in between.  Is ketchup indeed our westernized version of fish sauce?

I will admit once upon a time fish sauce had left me a skeptic, but now much to my delight, this “Vietnamese ketchup” has opened my eyes to food experiences well beyond my formerly sheltered tastes.  Nuoc mam is a metaphor for Vietnam.  First impressions can overwhelm the newly initiated and cause us to take cover.  Once we get used to the brashness, however, we can dig under the surface and see it for what it is…Bold and full of flavor.  Give something new a chance and it can prove a flavor packed addition to our lives.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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