When I was in Singapore last month, food expert Christopher Tan (foodfella.com) and I had a long conversation about different kinds of fish sauces. I'd tasted it in a number of dishes in Singapore and was surprised to see it so present in the food. Yes, the beloved Viet condiment is used in many cuisines, and it's just not in that of Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. I mentioned that Knorr has been buying and bottling tons of nuoc mam fish sauce from Phu Quoc island off the coast of Vietnam -- where the best fish sauce is made. (Okay, I'm biased!) Chris, who has a well-tuned palate and amazing passion for food, said he was preparing for a fish sauce tasting in Singapore and would get some.
In preparation for the event, Chris asked me to decipher this fish sauce label from a Knorr bottle. The label basically touts it's purity and well-balanced flavors -- a lot like a fine wine. It also says to users that it's just for dipping sauces and table uses. It's too good to be cooked with. The price is rather low -- 12,000 Vietnamese Dong (75 cents), which is probably for one of the small tableside-sized bottles. Click on the thumbnail image to view a larger one.
So how did the Vietnamese fish sauce stand up the others? Chris just sent these remarks and results:
China - Swee Huat Yu Lu from Shantou
Very salty, otherwise unremarkable. A bland fish sauce more suited to cooking or adjusting the seasoning of a sauce/gravy with, or for light dips.
The Philippines - Florence Patis
Salty flavour, though aroma has slight sweetness. Very simple taste. Very short aftertaste has a slight flatness from sodium benzoate.
Thailand - Tiparos nam pla
Both sweet and salty in the initial taste - it contains added sugar - but overall much better balanced than the above two sauces, with stronger and more rounded anchovy notes.
Vietnam - Thanh Ha Chanh Hieu Phu Quoc nuoc mam, 40 Dam
Easily the most complex of all the sauces we tasted. Beautiful colour. The salt hits you first, but then the fish flavours come forward. Rich and smooth feel in the mouth.
Vietnam - Knorr Nuoc Mam Cham
A lot of people liked this. Like a sweeter version of the Thanh Ha, and to me even oilier on the lips. Long aftertaste. Would be peerless as a dipping sauce base.
Myanmar - Fish Sauce (label's all in Burmese, but there's a prawn-shaped logo on it, so maybe prawn brand?)
Very interesting - earthy, mushroomy notes in its aroma, and a murky cola colour, but the taste, though salty, was quite mild, with some of the funky, leaf-mould nuances that you taste in some Burmese dishes. Would work well in braised dishes containing mushrooms, or in claypot rice, I'd wager.
Korea - Sandlance Fish Aekjeot (label is totally in Korean, so don't know the brand name)
Meant primarily for making kimchi, apparently. This had good colour and was very smooth, but it smelt sulphurous, like pungent salted-egg yolks, and hence was almost universally face-wrinkling.
I've done personal tastings myself but not for a crowd. Sounds like fun! If any of you are tasting new kinds of fish sauce, let us know!
Related information: Fish Sauce Buying Guide