scent story by Trang
It was so cold that winter that we stood by the furnace and kissed. He said I tasted like cigarettes and fish sauce. And then, an octave lower, “I love it.”
The boy is now gone, along with the smoking habit. But like so many things we obsess over because of their maddening potency, Vietnamese nước mấm remains the epitome of this affliction. For me at least. My name is Trang, and I’m addicted to fish sauce. I confess. I will seek every vehicle to transport it to my mouth. I simmer down chicken carcasses for broth, but really, just to be able to dip bits of flesh in fish sauce kicked up with slivers of chili and a hit of lime. I wilt garlicky pea shoots because the bright green bite picks up the richness of fish sauce perfectly. I put a few drops of this fermented liquid in my butternut squash soup for that extra, discernable depth. Capers aside, my beurre noir sauce is not complete without it.
I can’t claim this obsession as my own eccentric quirk though. Known as nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, badec in Laos, and bagoong in Indonesia, fish sauce is adored across Southeast Asia and resonates in histories of the world. Once it was a great favorite of the Romans. Apicius cited it over 2,000 years ago in his cookbook, calling it garum and liquamen produced in salting factories, and sold by salsarii. From the loftiest Roman foodie court to the lowliest peasant hovel, fish sauce held its place in nearly every home. The most superior of this form was made using “the fresh spilled blood from the still-beating heart of a live mackerel.” The Greeks prized fish sauce so much they used it in social negotiations of desire. In one case, a man refused to trade his stash for an evening with a famed courtesan. The English dubbed their version fishpickle, and the original Worcestershire sauce claims to be the happy descendent of this.
For the uninitiated or lily-livered, fish sauce proper can be a dense salt-punch to the face. It’s visceral and pungent, funky even. It assaults the senses. After all, we are talking about a pure concentrated liquid extracted from fresh fish (usually uneviscerated anchovies) steeped in layers of salt and fermented in huge wooden or ceramic vats for 1-2 years until the clear supernatant liquid oozes out. Microbial digestion of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and salt ensure that the liquid remains pure. Once extracted, the liquid basks in the hot sun to mellow and develop flavor; the rest of the original concoction is fashioned into other edibles, namely fish paste. Much like the processes of casketing wine or scotch to encourage depth and smoothness, the best fish sauce leads a life of leisure before it is filtered, bottled, and sent off to work.
The sensitive palate can pick up complex notes of sea salt and noses of caramel in the first pour. This transparent amber liquid is comparable—in mouth feel, unctuousness, and depth—to the first pour of a vintner’s blend, or the first press of the most verdant extra virgin olive oil. It’s the difference between 2% and whole milk. This upper echelon of the fish sauce hierarchy is generally reserved for closest of kin, gifted to the most esteemed patrons, or used to lube up influential officials to this very day. Subsequent pours lack the same tone, clarity and complexity, but are nonetheless delicious (and more economical for everyday cooking). The sauce itself may be “dark” in flavor, but gussied up with a squeeze of lime, sugar and garlic, and the liquor grows bright and festive. Most of us have typically encountered fish sauce in this peppy diluted form: as a dip for Vietnamese spring-rolls, or as dressing in a bracing Thai papaya salad. Its uses, however, extend beyond the usual blendings and fixes.
At the risk of sounding like a dogmatic Vietnameanie, I will state: it is not okay to use soy sauce in place of fish sauce! Soy sauce floods and overtakes other flavors, which is fine if you want that. Fish sauce, on the other hand, harmonizes ingredients and conducts symphonies. It is a little alchemy in the kitchen, whether you prefer your magic rustic or elegant, rowdy or refined. But to experience the full toasty nuttiness of this condiment, choose a first pour of superior quality (labeled nuoc mam nhi on Vietnamese brands). The different is a few dollars, but worth it. Splash a few drops over some grilled fish, drizzle over a bed of baby watercress. Or, as I do, pour into a shallow dish and dip, dip, dip your fingers in. And if you can find someone who will kiss you afterwards, count that as your double bliss.