Distilled fish remains might not strike everyone as a culinary delight, but don't tell that to Bang or anyone else on Phu Quoc Island. The spry septuagenarian is Phu Quoc's undisputed master taster of nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce that is the heart of Vietnamese cuisine. This tiny island off the southern coast is famed for producing the best nuoc mam in the world. Nearly half of Phu Quoc's economy is dependent on nuoc mam, with 90 family-owned factories producing 10 million liters a year and passing their secrets down from generation to generation. The tangy odor is omnipresent.
Fermenting fish into a sauce dates back thousands of years: a similar sauce, known as garum or liquamen, was the most common seasoning in the Roman Empire. Southeast Asians still have the taste. Thais produce nam pla, Filipinos patis. In Vietnam, though, nuoc mam is more than just an important ingredient. "I can't cook without it," says Tran Cong, 33, chef of Le Tonkin restaurant in Hanoi. "Vietnamese food would turn into nothing without nuoc mam."
What sets Phu Quoc's nuoc mam apart is its ingredients and the islanders' know-how. Unlike competitors in Thailand and the Philippines, Phu Quoc's factories use only ca com, or long-jawed anchovies, eschewing competitors' methods of mixing other kinds of fish in with the ca com. The three-meter-high fermentation vats are made with special woods, which lend their own unique flavor to the sauce. The island's nuoc mam is so famous it has inspired would-be sauciers in Vietnam and further afield to trade illicitly on its tangy reputation. Nguyen Thi Tinh, president of the Phu Quoc Fish Sauce Producers Association, went on a business trip to France last year and found a bottle of imported Vietnamese fish sauce in a supermarket. "The label said Phu Quoc, but when I looked closer, it said 'Made in Thailand' on it," recalls Tinh. "I was horrified." France recently signed an agreement giving Nuoc Mam Phu Quoc an appellation d'origine contrôlée, the same status given to Cham-pagne vintners. Which just proves what nuoc mam lovers have always believed: a good fish sauce is as precious as a fine wine.