Among the top things to do on Phu Quoc Island is paying a visit to one of the famous fish sauce factories. Fish sauce is one of the key ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine and the products of Phu Quoc are considered some of the best of Vietnam.
The enchanting smell of anchovies in a process of autolysis, which is the name for enzymatic self-digestion, indicates the proximity of a fish sauce factory on Phu Quoc Island. Usually you can get a peek through the doors and see the huge, wooden tanks, where the fish are slowly fermenting for months, until the clear liquid that accumulates on top, can be filtered and bottled.
Phu Quoc island is famous for traditionally produced, flavorful fish sauce, without the chemical additives. The most important ingredient is time. It takes between eight and nine months for the amber-colored liquid to be ready for sale.
Its relatively high content of natural glutamate adds an umami flavor to dishes, the reason why it’s so popular in Vietnamese cuisine. During our stay at Phu Quoc island, we actually visited two fish sauce factories. One is called Phung Hung. It is on Nguyễn Văn Cừ street, right opposite Phu Quoc Prison. The other one, Khai Hoan, where we bought our supply of the tasty ingredient, is on 11 Hung Vuong street in Duong Dong.
The latter is located at the riverside, where we could see one of the boats delivering the raw material - tons of anchovies in sea salt. Now, that might be a bit much to stomach for some travelers, but I found it pretty interesting.
A lady runs a durian stall right outside the gates of the shop, and where the smell of fermenting anchovies and durian mingles, that’s the place where even I was not really eager to spend more time than necessary.
There is actually one more fish sauce factory that is accessible to visitors, Hung Thinh, which is on 30 Thang 4 on Phu Quoc island.
If you want to get your supply of fish sauce, or nước mắm how it’s called in Vietnamese, you can buy the best quality at the showrooms and shops. (Be aware that many airlines don’t allow liquids in the hand baggage.) Here you see an assortment of nước mắm at the shop that is attached to the Khai Hoan factory:
They sell two grades of the delicious, amber-colored liquid. 40 and 43, which indicates the strength and saltiness of the concoction. The 43 grade fish sauce is more expensive, but lasts longer.
If you are unsure what type of delicious Phu Quoc fish sauce to purchase, you can try both of them first with disposable straws they provide at the desk.
Dip your straw into the nước mắm and taste it (just don’t suck in the liquid through the straw…).
At first it may sound odd. Why should pay VND 99,000 or VND 155,000 for a big bottle of nước mắm, if you can get the same amount for VND 39,700 at the local supermarket? The Phu Quoc fish sauce is the real thing. Anchovies, salt and that’s it. No preservatives, no additional flavors, food coloring or artificial MSG. It’s not only healthier than the enhanced stuff, it also tastes much more balanced.
Did you know that the Vietnamese were not the only culture to invent fish sauce? The Romans actually had a similar condiment, called garum or liquamen. In Campina in Italy, they still produce a type of fish sauce, called colatura di alici.
Similar to modern Phu Quoc fish sauce, garum was made through the process of autolysis, but they only used the blood and intestines of fish, while in Vietnam, they use whole anchovies. Garum was very popular, because it contained a good amount of minerals, proteins and amino acids, as well as B vitamins. But many Romans found it disgusting.
The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:
“Do you not realize that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction?”
But Seneca was known as quite old-fashioned, so the garum-lovers probably didn’t care much.
And similar to ancient Rome, the people nowadays have divided opinions about nước mắm. Some love it, some hate it, but for most Vietnamese it’s just what generations of housewives used to create the Vietnamese signature dishes. Vietnamese fish sauce is usually used as a dipping sauce, a mix of nước mắm, lime or kumquat juice, sugar, chili and/or garlic and water.
Nguyễn Văn Cừ street
Opposite of Phu Quoc Prison
11 Hung Vuong street
30 Thang 4 Street