After a hectic few days in Saigon and a few more exploring the backwaters and floating markets of the Mekong Delta, we ferried to the southernmost tip of Vietnam, Phu Quoc island. A tropical island with a relatively underdeveloped resort industry, Phu Quoc doesn’t have a lot going on, which makes it pretty much paradise. Especially for anchovies.
The waters around the Phu Quoc archipelago are home to the world’s finest black anchovies, which are in turn made into the world’s finest fish sauce in the island’s many fish sauce factories. The Phu Quoc name has become so synonymous with quality fish sauce that producers in Thailand have started sirruptuously
appropriating it, much to Vietnamese chagrin. For years, Phu Quoc was almost entirely isolated from the mainland, and today, outside of the hotels that have cropped up along Long Beach, it still retains a strong fishing village feel and economy.
We had the pleasure of spending four days with Cuong Pham, the founder of Red Boat Fish Sauce, a boutique label making big waves in the States. Cuong, a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant who splits his time between San Francisco and Phu Quoc, is beyond passionate about fish sauce. Spurred by childhood memories of Phu Quoc fish sauce from his uncle’s factory, Cuog left a lucrative career in tech to return to his family’s hometown and start Red Boat in 2006. Today, the brand is a darling of big-name chefs and the food media elite for its purity and taste, though Cuong is still only capable of producing a maximum of 40,000 bottles a month (a fraction of what the big boys can pump out).
Cuong took us to the fish market, let us try first-press year-old fish sauce straight from the barrel in his factory, and answered endless questions about the science and production of fish sauce. I’ll be writing more about the production elsewhere, but in a nutshell, Cuong carefully oversees every step of the process, starting with the fish themselves: he contracts with a handful of anchovy fishermen and pays them a premium to salt their fresh catch with a high-quality sea salt from a neighboring province. After transporting the fish back to the factory, he ages them in 20-foot wooden barrels for a year, carefully monitoring their nitrogen per liter level (more nitrogen = higher quality sauce). Despite the fact that they could easily age the anchovies less and press them more, Red Boat only sells the golden, viscous liquid from the first pressing. Of course, the entire process is subject to seasonal fluctuations and the whims of mother nature herself, which is part of the reason Red Boat is salso more expensive than the mass-produced stuff, which is often watered down and pumped full of preservatives.
Sure, fish sauce tourism isn’t everyone’s idea of a great vacation. And with the construction of an impending casino on the island (to say noting of the road work and hotel construction we witnessed all over), Phu Quoc is quickly modernizing. But Cuong sees a future in perfecting the amber-colored sauce, and I believe in him.