Fish sauce is the foundation of Vietnamese cuisine, and some of the best brands in the world can be found on Phu Quoc Island. Here, we explore what distinguishes good from great when it comes to fish sauce, while selecting some of our favorite Phu Quoc fish sauce brands.
From the beginning, when Cassia Cottage was built as a haven for our spice trader founder, food was always at the forefront of most conversations.
When the first intrepid travelers began tripping down Ba Keo Beach in the late ‘90s in search of the best beach on Phu Quoc Island, they needed somewhere to stay. With Phu Quoc’s tourism industry in its infancy, places were scarce.
So, besides offering them a room at Cassia Cottage, our boutique Phu Quoc Resort before it even became a Phu Quoc resort (which took a few more years to realize), we also offered them hearty home-cooked meals of Vietnamese food infused with the spices our founder had set out to find. Today, as it was back then, the dishes served from our kitchen rely on the best fish sauce.
Of course, fish sauce isn’t exclusively Vietnamese. The sauce is prevalent in Thai and Chinese cuisine as well as in Vietnamese food. There’s even evidence that the ancient Romans had their own version, called garum. That’s believable because of the simplicity in making fish sauce. Take fish, like anchovies, sea salt, and ferment them in a container. But, despite that simplicity, the taste of different fish sauces can vary dramatically.
According to our Cassia Cottage’s The Spice House chef, the first element of a delicious fish sauce is finding the right balance between salt and sweetness. This is why he, like lots of chefs here, favors fish sauces that have a subtle hint of sweetness to them. Additionally, many chefs, like ours, insist upon the purest fish sauces that are made with small fish like anchovies or sardines due to the depth of flavor they bring out in dishes.
And, as you might expect from Cassia Cottage’s The Spice House, where we take pride in using natural ingredients, our chef advises avoiding sauces that have artificial flavorings or preservatives added in, both for health reasons, and because they can impact the flavor of the final dish.
As fish sauce is so integral to Vietnamese food, it’s always advisable to use the best you can find. With the right ingredients, careful selection and proper storage, your choice of fish sauce will be a key ingredient to culinary success when you return home with a head full of recipes to try out.
Vietnamese fish sauce bottles are usually marked with a degree – which represents the protein content in the sauce. So, the higher the degree the greater the protein, which means more umami flavor, and, often, a higher price tag. Vietnamese fish sauce is usually marked between 20°N and 60°N. Our Cassia’s Cottage’s The Spice House chef suggests using the lower quality fish sauce for cooking and reserving the higher quality sauce as an ingredient in, for example, dipping sauces.
Fortunately, Phu Quoc Island fish sauce is renowned for its quality – meaning dishes served at Phu Quoc beachfront restaurants like The Spice House are extremely flavorsome, but also that you can buy a bottle or two to take home.
There are a number of excellent brands with rich and complex flavors.
Red Boat Fish Sauce, which graces the kitchens of some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the world. It’s made with wild-caught anchovies that have been slowly fermented and seasoned with sea salt, giving it an intense flavor. This sauce adds strong umami notes to any recipe. And Cassia Cottage uses Red Boat only for our table.
Another popular option is Khai Hoan Fish Sauce which has been fermented in barrels to enhance its flavor. The brand, rightly, credit: “the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors” for the quality of their sauce.
But, for something truly unique, try Phung Hung Fish Sauce. This sauce features a mild flavor that is slightly sweet and well-rounded. The brand started off small-scale in the 1990s, with anchovies caught by fishermen off Phu Quoc. Today, it’s also made with fresh ingredients for a truly luxurious experience.
Then, for an artisanal take on fish sauce, try one from Thanh Phuong. This popular brand features a complex flavor profile of salty, sweet and slightly spicy notes, perfect for adding depth to any dish.
Finally, and perhaps the most famous of all, is Ong Ky Fish Sauce, one of the best options due to this 40°N sauce’s intense umami profile which can add complexity and depth to any dish, thanks to the barrel-fermentation process the brand employs. The bold branding on the bottles with the rich brown sauce and red cap also make it an attractive (and edible) gift.
But perhaps on your Phu Quoc Island adventures, you’ll discover a small producer creating fish sauce that matches the brand’s listed above. And that’s the same spirit of adventure that led us to found Cassia Cottage in the first place.
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