When shopping for Vietnamese groceries, I always purchase the brands that my mother and grandmother use in their kitchens. From rice noodles to curry powder to fish sauce, every ingredient found in my pantry has earned my family’s trust for its dependable quality and most satisfactory flavor.
For years I’ve been using the Flying Lion and Squid brands of fish sauce. Both are readily available in Asian supermarkets and are competitively priced. I didn’t think much about the origin of either bottle, or their ingredients for that matter, until I received a sample of artisanal Red Boat Fish Sauce. It turns out there’s a lot more to nước mắm than packing a mean umami punch.
Founded in 2006 by Vietnamese-American Cuong Pham, Red Boat strives to produce the purest fish sauce available on the market. Every bottle is made on the island of Phu Quoc using wild-caught black anchovies (ca com). The fishes are salted within minutes of leaving the ocean water, then aged for more than a year in wooden barrels to achieve the smoothest, richest, and sweetest flavor. Red Boat bottles the first press “extra virgin” fish sauce, so the only ingredients are anchovies and sea salt.
On paper, Red Boat Fish Sauce sounded just about perfect. However, only a blind taste test could convince me that the product was actually different and better than its competitors. In a thoroughly scientific tasting conducted in my kitchen, I pitted “extra-virgin fish sauce” against the standard stuff. Both bottles in my cupboard were produced in Thailand and contained anchovy extract, fructose, and MSG.
After tasting the fish sauces on plain white rice and straight up, the differences between the products were very clear. Whereas standard fish sauce tasted assertive, pungent, and well, fishy, Red Boat’s brew was well-rounded and nuanced.
I’ll still reach for Squid and Flying Lion’s fish sauces for noodle soups and braising meats, but for fresh salads and nuoc cham, I’m going with Red Boat.
UPDATE: I’ve transitioned completely to Red Boat. It’s hard to reach for inferior fish sauces when this product works so beautifully in all of my cooking.