Friday, January 27, 2012

Mekong Delta Fish Sauce -- The Elixir of Life

Like forest fires and volcano eruptions, the devastating floods that have killed more than 1000 in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are also the life forces of the Mekong River, Asia’s 7th-longest and the world's 10th-longest river, respectively.

The floods’ rich silt deposits fertilize the soils of Thailand and Vietnam, turning them into the world’s number one and number two rice exporters, respectively. The floods also stock and feed the fishes of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, the world’s richest freshwater fishery.

Growing up in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, the floods were not only the source of endless fun, but also a great time for fishing. One particular fish was the humble minnow, or cá linh in Vietnamese, which was used to make a very special fish sauce. Fish sauce, like olive oil to an Italian family, was king in the kitchen, then garlic, MSG, sugar, black pepper and, lastly, salt. Herbs and spices were pretty much whatever that grew in the garden or the back of the house.

For as long as I could remember, we never had to purchase fish sauce. We made our own. Every family did  unique to the Cambodians living around the Tonle Sap area and the Vietnamese in the An Giang and Dong Thap provinces. The minnows were plentiful during the monsoonal flooding season, which runs from July to November.

Fully-grown Mekong River Minnows
The humble two-inch minnows, spawned and hatched in the Tonle Sap or Great Lake, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, began to move out of the lake in June and followed the flood water into the paddy fields around the lake and downstream in Vietnam, where they fattened up, before heading back up into the Tonle Sap to spawn. Most were caught, but enough made it back up the river to begin the life cycle all over again.

The fish was so plentiful that one could literally catch them by placing a net anywhere in the water. Making fish sauce was the primary use, but the minnows, being that small and with tiny bones, were also great for drying, frying, stewing, as well as in the traditional sweet and sour soup. My favorite was battered and deep fried – the Mekong Delta sardines. Eating whole, of course.

Small families could make do with about 40 kilos of fish – good for one year  but large families would need up to 150 kilos.

The process began with the fish being washed thoroughly but with the guts, scales and fins fully intact. For 40 kilos of fish, about 12 kilos of salt would be used. Fish and salt were roughly mixed together, but with about 3 - 5 kilos of salt was left to top the fish off, packing them down.

Kimchee Pickling Jars
Typically large glazed earthen jars were used, ones that are similar to those used for pickling kimchee. Some folks swore by their own secret ingredients, which was nothing more than either one or two pineapples, cut up but unpeeled or a couple of kilos of the rice paddy mud crabs, or both.

The jars then would be left out in the sun, and the mixture would be stirred with large wooden ladles or chopsticks every few days. Pretty soon a pungent aroma began to waft through every town and village in the region. Since everyone was making their own fish sauce, nobody was bothered by the overpowering aroma.

The mash was left out in the sun for about a month or two depending on the size of the fish. The two-inchers typically took about a month to break down. By now what had sunk to the bottom of the jars was essentially highly salted decomposed fish, taken on a grayish-green color.

The big pots or cauldrons would be set out on improvised stoves, outdoors, of course, for the smoke and the pungent aroma would be too much for indoors. Then the mash was transferred into the pots. The cooking process could take up to three or four hours or until all the bones and other secret ingredients completely broken down into tiny bits.

Cooking and Filtering the Mash
The pots, and the fire, had to be constantly tended to, especially to scoop out the heads or impurities that floated to the top. This was key because what rose to the top could essentially ruin the finished product if not scooped out.

Next, fine cheese cloth would be placed on top of pots, pans, jars or whatever type of holding container available. Slowly the cooked mash would be scooped out of the pots and poured over the cloth. The elixir of life slowly squeezed its way through the fine mesh, dripping into the containers below. This slow, painstaking process yielded a crystal clear golden brown liquid, nothing but pure fish sauce. Each 40 kilos of fish yielded about 30 liters of fish sauce.

This fish sauce, called nước mắm cá linh, if done right, was rather fragrant, devoid of any fishy smell. It was salty, but had a pleasant after taste, not a burning sensation. Another way to tell if it was artisanal was to drop in a grain of cooked rice at room temperature. The rice should float to the top. 

And folks, that is the Mekong Delta minnow fish sauce, the Vietnamese elixir of life.

(Nước means water or liquid. Mắm means pickled. Cá linh is the Vietnamese name for the minnows.)


  1. Great post! Now I see why you wanted to talk about fish sauce last night :-)

  2. Erica,

    Thanks. Really enjoyed your talk at Omnivore Books & congrats on the publication of your book, as well. Since fish sauce is all the rage now, I thought I should share a bit of my childhood memories.

  3. Great post, Sonny! I've been wanting to write up something about fish sauce too, but just never get around to it. I didn't know about nước mắm cá linh. Now I'd really like to try some.I was interested to learn about the "secret ingredients" some people use; pineapple or crab. If added sparingly, I imagine these might contribute an interesting layer of flavour.
    Do you have a favourite fish sauce that you buy in the States?

    I've always wanted to do a fish sauce tasting. I recently read "Communion: A Culinary Journey through Viet Nam" by Kim Fay (@kimkfay). In her chapter on Phan Thiết, she describes visiting a fish sauce factory, and doing a tasting of five different samples from different companies and provinces. Fascinating stuff.

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