What do Vietnamese fish sauce and French
Cognac have in common?
Although their culinary uses are quite different, Cognac brandy and Vietnamese fish sauce are both produced using age-old methods that recall pre-industrial ways of life. Grapes for making cognac are picked from vineyards, and fish and salt for fish sauce
are taken from the sea. Neither production process
involves the use of chemicals: grapes ferment and
fish dissolve naturally. The containers used to store
cognac and fish sauce are also made of natural
materials: cognac casks are made of oak, while fish
sauce baskets and barrels are made of wood, bamboo
The making of cognac and fish sauce requires time, care, patience and hard work. The longer the product is stored, the tastier it becomes. The quality of cognac and fish sauce depends on the climate and geography of the production area.
Successful recipes for these precious products are kept secret within families and handed down from generation to generation. When the products are finished, makers must smell and taste cognac and fish sauce to gauge its quality.
Research has yet to determine when fish sauce first appeared in Vietnam. But according to recent archaeological findings in Pompeii, southern Italy, the ancient Greeks used to make a substance similar to fish sauce, which they call garum. The Greeks put salt on fish and kneaded the fish for several days, and then secreted the condensed substance from
Like brandy, which is used to treat colds, fish sauce is used medicinally for such health problems as stomach aches and hiccups. A drop of high quality fish sauce helps a scuba diver remain in the water for an entire day without feeling cold.
Excerpts from the Vietnam Cultural Window and written by Nguyen Tien Huu