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Binh Tan fish sauce - a Nha Trang specialty

Binh Tan is an age-old village next to the estuary of the same name in present-day Vinh Truong Ward in Nha Trang City. For a hundred years, the villagers here have earned their living with nuoc mam (fish sauce).

Nuoc mam is to Vietnamese cooking what salt is to Western and soy sauce to Chinese cooking. It is used as a condiment and is an essential in practically all recipes.

One interesting characteristic of fish sauce is that it loses its fishy, pungent odor once other ingredients are added to it. Together with chili and carrot slices, it is often used as a dipping.

The other characteristics of fish sauce are precisely its fishy smell and salty flavor. And especially its pervasive, raw smell is what visitors to Binh Tan first notice.

Stopping at the bustling fishing wharf of Vinh Truong, you see hundreds of people busy with unloading fish from the ships docked at the wharf. Ca com, or anchovy fish, is the main ingredient to make nuoc mam in Binh Tan.

Ngoc Hoai, a woman who has been making fish sauce for 30 years, says Nha Trang has many anchovy fish, and nuoc mam made from the fish caught in the region tastes different from elsewhere in Vietnam.

A house where nuoc mam is made is called nha thung (house of barrels) because of the large wooden barrels, in which the sauce is prepared and which are everywhere in the house.

Some barrels are so big that they can hold hundreds of kilograms of fish. The barrels are usually made from wood of such trees as bang lang, sen or chieu lieu, whose trunks range in diameter from 60 to 100 centimeters.

The timber is split into four-to-five-centimeter-thick sheets, which are dried thoroughly and then assembled into round or oval barrels, each fastened with four or five bamboo ropes.

To make the ropes, bamboo is submerged in a creek, river or pond for two to three months and then split into two-to-three-centimeter strands. Ten to 20 of those are plaited together to make the rope.

Any cracks or holes in the barrel, excluding the essential draining hole at the bottom, are filled with a mixture of otter oil, resin, sawdust and cajuput. The barrel then has to dry for at least one week.

Then the actual task begins. To make nuoc mam, people usually mix fresh anchovy fish with salt based on a 1:1 ratio, meaning for one bowl of fish, you add one bowl of salt.

After the fish is washed, it and the salt are placed in alternating layers to fill the barrel. The barrel is sealed and left for a minimum of six months so that the mixture can ferment.

The first liquid that comes out is known as nuoc mam song (raw fish sauce). The cloudy nuoc mam song later is poured back into the barrel.

The next liquid that drips out of the barrel is called nuoc mam nhi. The dark yellow liquid has an average protein concentration of 36% and is considered to have the best quality.

Divers also use nuoc mam nhi to keep warm and ward off colds. After taking the nuoc mam nhi, people put more salt into the barrel to produce category-two nuoc mam.

The technique of preparing nuoc mam in Binh Tan has changed in recent years. Many of the more than 200 families now making fish sauce in the village have replaced the old wooden barrels with cement tanks to shorten the time for fermentation.

However, the flavor of nuoc mam remains unchanged. Many fish sauce makers in the village have become popular under their registered tradenames, such as Chin Tuy, Nha Trang, Hai Viet, Ngoc Hoai and Ngoc Hai.

And to spread the essential sauce, nuoc mam from Binh Tan is available at shops selling specialties of Nha Trang so that tourists can bring it to many other regions and countries.

(22 / 06 -SGT)

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