Extracting quintessence from the sea

Wednesday, 2021-06-09 17:24:54
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Traditional fish sauce production in Phu Quoc.
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NDO – Phu Quoc Island, in Kien Giang province, is not only famous for its beautiful natural landscape but also for its rich aquatic resources and seafood. Coming to the island, many tourists cannot afford to miss a unique experience: visiting the distilleries of the Phu Quoc fish sauce, preserving the hundred-year old traditional craft, and features the unique cultural characteristics of the islanders.

Fish sauce is a spice that adds a salty flavor and protein to dishes, popular in Vietnam and many Asian countries. To produce delicious drop fish sauce is a feat as well as an interesting process, from catching fish to salting and fermenting through many different stages. According to some historical records, the fish sauce-making craft in Phu Quoc appeared around the end of the 19th century, passed down from parent to child. Many families maintained their reputation from generation to generation. Most of the fish sauce production facilities are concentrated in the Duong Dong and An Thoi wards. Fish sauce establishments are called "nha thung" (barrel houses) because the traditional island method to make fish sauce is fermenting fish in huge wooden barrels, different from many other areas in Vietnam which use big clay jars instead of wooden barrels. Currently, on the itinerary of most Phu Quoc tours, visitors are brought to the fish sauce barrel house. Self-sufficient tourists can also choose the experience.

In the spacious, clean manufacturing area, hundreds of dark brown wooden barrels, tied with six or eight rattan woven straps, four meters high and three meters in diameter, are lined up in a straight line. The wood must be Litsea glutinosa (also known as brown beech) only found in Phu Quoc’s forests. In order to make large standard wooden barrels, workers must have a high level of skill and careful calculations, so they are tight enough to avoid leaks. Each barrel can hold many tonnes of fish. The expiry date can be up to 60 years.

It is these wooden barrels that also contribute to the special colour and flavor of Phu Quoc fish sauce. Phu Quoc fish sauce has the colour of cockroach wings and a naturally sweet aroma, not too salty. Fish sauce from the wooden barrels is extracted according to a hygienic process, packed into beautiful plastic or glass bottles, suitable as souvenirs for family and relatives. Visitors can choose to buy fish sauce right there and then at the barrel house; the product will be carefully boxed and sealed, and sent to their door.

Phu Quoc fish sauce is divided into many kinds by name of fish or processing type. Yet the best one must surely be the Phu Quoc anchovy fish sauce, made from a type of anchovy that can only be found in the waters of Phu Quoc. Fish caught from about July to December will give the highest quality and must be washed and salted on the fishing boat using the highest quality salt, low in impurities. When placed in the incubation barrel, the fish is salted again, then lies for 10 to 15 months in airtight barrel houses at a stable temperature. Each barrel house has its own methods and secrets to create the finished product with a specific colour, protein content and flavor.

From pure fish sauce, the people of Phu Quoc continue to create dozens of types of fish sauce used different types of food, from seafood, salads, to vermicelli, and noodles, contributing to the variety of cuisine on the island.

According to the Chairman of the Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Association, Ho Kim Lien, there are nearly 100 barrel houses on the island, producing an average of 10-12 million liters of fish sauce per year. Since its formation and development, the fish sauce-making craft in Phu Quoc has gone through many periods, from rudimentary to the mechanization of some stages in production, but it still preserves the essence of traditional processing alongside increasingly advanced technology.

In order to maintain its resources, ensure quality and preserve the brand, the barrel houses and fish sauce-making manufacturing in Phu Quoc voluntarily adheres to "unwritten" principles such as: not fishing in the breeding season, not mixing the anchovies with other types of fish, not using industrial chemicals.

Phu Quoc fish sauce is widely sold on the domestic and international markets, being the first Vietnamese product protected by the European Union (EU) and recognised regarding the geographical origin of goods (since 2012).

On May 27, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism officially decided to recognize the fish sauce-making craft in Phu Quoc as a national intangible cultural heritage.