“It’s sweet, and it shines like honey,” my mom recalls. She was in fifth grade, her teacher, whose family also owns a fish sauce plant, gave each student in the class a sample of the condiment in a mini plastic pouch. When my mom took it home, it took her mom no time to see that this was the Ninth Symphony of fish sauce. It didn’t take the Vietnamese grandmothers in the Bay Area very long either, Rob Bergstrom said, and I quote, to “limp out of the store carrying a full case” of Red Boat’s.
I met Rob because of a half-a-month-late comment that I left on Ravenous Couple’s glowing review. Rob is a man who goes around grocery stores and the world to taste fish sauce straight out of the bottle by the spoonfuls (I don’t recommend doing it at home if you’re under 18). And Rob was moved by my mom’s fifth grade experience, which, he said, is similar to a few sparse stories among the older Vietnamese about an excellent-quality fish sauce that some have once tasted in their lifetime and never again. Especially not in the States, where a “Nước Mắm Phú Quốc” bottle, in big font Vietnamese, reads “Product of Thailand” in the small prints.
For those who know fish sauce, skip the rest of this paragraph. For those who don’t know fish sauce, yes I agree, “fish sauce” does not sound candle-light-and-roses to the ear. It’s a lose translation of “nước mắm“, whose literal translation isn’t any more poetic either (I’d translate it if you ask). The sauce itself is actually subjected to many chuckles and jokes among Vietnamese. But it’s the backbone of Vietnamese seasonings. It’s used to marinate meat, to caramelize claypot dishes, to flavor-ize broths, to make dipping sauce for a myriad of wraps and rolls. Fish sauce to Vietnamese food is like soy sauce and sesame oil to Korean food, curry to Indian food, and BBQ sauce to Texas barbecued brisket. (Savory Vietnamese food, unless made by my mom, needs fish sauce to taste good.) What is the sauce made of? Fish and salt. In a barrel lie layers of fish and layers of salt for months, by osmosis and high salt concentration on the outside, the juice inside the fish is sucked out, the flesh collapses and degrades, the mixture ferments (don’t cringe, wine is fermented stuff too, and old country ham grows mold on the crust). At the end of several months, you open the spout at the bottom, and out comes an amber liquid. That’s the first press of fish sauce. Then water and salt are added to the now mostly, if not all, disintegrated fish, more fermentation takes place, out comes the second press. Then the third, and might as well the fourth. By this time, it’s practically salt water.
The bottles in the markets, even in Vietnam, do not contain pure fish sauce (fish and salt) but also water, fructose, and “hydrolyzed wheat protein”, a more sophisticated name of MSG. The producers have to add those things to boost the taste because the base sauce is not the (first) concentrated extract that comes out of the spout, but what comes after. You might think that there would be a big lucrative market for premium sauce such as this in Vietnam, but sadly, much of it is used by large companies for blending with other additives to produce large volumes of second grade sauce, which is often mislabeled as first quality. Because of this, authentic first pressing Phu Quoc fish sauce is very hard to come by, even in Saigon.
So Cường Phạm brought his family’s first press to the States. Obviously a good move. An even better move is when he shook hand with Rob Bergstrom, who helped him expanding the American market, and last I heard, the New Zealand market too. You gotta hear Rob talk to see how he much adores it. Here’s a few things I learned about Red Boat from him (that Ravenous Couple haven’t covered already):
M: What is the ratio between anchovy and salt in Red Boat fish sauce?
— Rob: The ratio depends on the leanness of any given catch of anchovy, but roughly somewhere between and 4:1 and 2.5:1 fish to salt (by weight).
M: What about the barrel construction?
— Rob: Red Boat uses hand made wood barrels, in the unique traditional Phu Quoc style, instead of concrete or clay ones. The barrels are kept indoors but some sunlight is let in and fresh coastal air is circulated through the building. The wood imparts a unique character on the sauce.
M: How long is the fermentation process?
— Rob: It usually takes 12-16 months to make the sauce, the longer fermentation yields greater protein concentrations and associated richness and depth.
M: What is the market spread of Red Boat now? Where can I find it around Berkeley?
— Rob: Red Boat has been very well received by Asian cooks and chefs. Often when Vietnamese folks try it they remember it as the flavor of the best fish sauce from home and will pick up a whole case. It has also become a “secret” ingredient used by chefs at many high end restaurants and it can currently be found at some of the best specialty food shops on the West Coast. Geographically, we get shipping orders from all over the country and hope to be in Asian and specialty markets nationwide by the end of the year. The enthusiastic reception by people using this in all types of cuisines has been fantastic.
(UPDATE: I met Rob 3 weeks later, when Berkeley’s Monterey Market and The Pasta Shop, among others, are now under the Red Boat spell.)
M: Is it sold in Vietnam?
— Rob: Not currently, but the sample tastings in Vietnam have been extremely well received so it is something that we are considering.
My interest was piqued. The glass bottle is stylishly shaped, the label has a clean design. Is this really the wonder liquid that my mom still remembers for years after tasting it once?
My pantry has a bottle of “Shrimp & Crab Brand – Premium Quality Fish Sauce” (Product of Thailand) that I bought some time ago on a whim. Now it comes in handy. First, a visual check.
– Viscosity check: S&C joyously streams out of the bottle like first graders out of school, while RB takes its time forming droplets at the hole. The discrepancy is slight but noticeable, especially if you check with a spoon.
– Smell check: RB is more solid but more pleasant than S&C.
– Taste check: [this is proof of my dedication to blogging. A lot of Vietnamese, my grandfather for example, put fish sauce (out of the bottle) on rice like people put butter on bread. I can’t. But this time, I taste a teaspoon of S&C, drink some water, and taste another teaspoon of RB. Then I repeat.] S&C: tastes like salt water with a stinging residual, RB: the immense saltiness dissipates after a few seconds, giving way to a faint but lasting sweetness at the back of the throat. This fish sauce is actually pleasant in its pure form!
I marinate my pork with it. Bob has used it in every one of his inventions with meat. Rob has tried it in a Bloody Mary. All of them are great. Bob jokes about incorporating it into ice cream, which can be quite reasonable if it’s to balance out a caramel-laden scoop. How about a simple lemonade with Red Boat instead of the common salted lemon drink (chanh muối)? How about Red Boat in sugarcane juice? Red Boat cupcakes? Red Boat mousse? Red Boat truffle? Red Boat key lime meringue? Okay I’ll stop.
DISCLAIMER: Beside one free bottle of Red Boat, I made no profit in exchange for this review. This review was written completely out of my own interest for the product.