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The sweet smell of nostalgia

(No.8, Vol.6,Oct-Nov 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Making fish sauce in Binh Thuan Province
Photo: Ngo Dinh Hong


One writer recalls a childhood
in the fish sauce capital of Vietnam


Perhaps nowhere in the country does fish sauce smell like in Phan Thiet. It’s this ardent smell and taste of the sea that that make Phan Thiet homesick children? Each year when the pickled fish is done, the smell everybody cherishes fills the air and spreads in cool breezes.
Late in 4th lunar month, when it begins to rain, Phan Thiet enters the southern fish season. 15 – 20m long Thai-style boats heaped up with fish crowd Con Cha and Binh Hung docks under Tran Hung Dao Bridge. Life in fishing villages becomes hectic. The fish is moved to smaller boats that go along the embankment, and then loaded onto three-wheelers that transport it to distribution points. Blue anchovy also piles up high along Ca Ty River. Fish sauce makers hire labour to take the fish to their fish tanks. The scattered fish shine and the roads brighten. We used to collect enough to feed the family for a few days. Well-fed with crustaceans, the fish is so plum its yellow fat brims the pot. What a sight!



At a fishing village in Ke Ga, Ham Thuan Nam District, Binh Thuan Province, 2015
Photo: Tran Binh An


Making fish sauce in Ham Tien Ward, Phan Thiet City, Binh Thuan Province, 2014
Photo: Truong Anh Vu


The wooden fish tanks are normally above an adult’s arm reach. The fish is mixed with salt in a 3 fish : 1 salt ratio before filling the tank. On top, they put stones to keep the fish down and let the sauce surface. After some time. the fish is pickled and its alluring smell begin to spread. It may be too much for strangers, but to the natives of Phan Thiet it’s the sweetest thing. The smell of ‘cooked’ sauce hangs in the air above the Phan Thiet shores from Phu Hai through Thanh Hai, Binh Hung, Duc Thang to Duc Nghia. After about a year being mummified in the tanks, the anchovy disintegrates, producing the sauce that is so unique to Phan Thiet seas. It smells of fish, tastes like fish, and shines like honey. Barrels of Phan Thiet fish sauce are then transported by the sea to distributors all over the country.
Nature has favoured Binh Thuan fishermen with a lot of fine anchovy; enough for the flow of Phan Thiet fish sauce reach faraway places of the world. Fish sauce makers consume hundreds of tons of fish each every year to sell, but most of Phan Thiet families also pickle 50-70kg of fish in ceramic jars for their own use and to give to their friends in other country sides. The nose-widening air of Phan Thiet has crossed all borders to hang over dining tables all over the world. No wonder people around call Phan Thiet natives the ‘fish sauce folks.’ I am so proud of this nickname. It reflects an over 300-year old tradition of my native land that produces an elixir all Vietnamese would be happy to add to their everyday meal.
Every time the southern fish season comes, I can still see vividly in my mind the image of Con Cha, Binh Hung docks and boats loaded with fresh anchovy, and the scene of crowds hurrying to bring the fish home to fill their tanks for a new sauce batch. The sweetness of the sauce always dampens my heart that it nurtured all my youth.

The article in Vietnamese was printed on www.baobinhthuan.com.vn


By Thai Son Ngoc
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