Archive for the 'Phu Quoc' Category

Red Boat Fish Sauce

Red Boat Fish Sauce

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.

Red Boat Fish Sauce

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.

Red Boat Fish Sauce

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.

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Vegetation Profile: Khoai Mỡ

Dioscorea alata, called water yam, winged yam, and purple yam, was first cultivated somewhere in Southeast Asia. Although it is not grown in the same quantities as the African yams it has the largest distribution world-wide of any cultivated yam, being grown in Asia, the Pacific islands, Africa, and the West Indies (Mignouna 2003). In the United States it has become an invasive species in some Southern states.

In the Philippines it is known as ube (or ubi) and is used as an ingredient in many sweet desserts. In India, it is known as ratalu or violet yam or the Moraga Surprise. In Hawaii it is known as uhi. Uhi was brought to Hawaii by the early Polynesian settlers and became a major crop in the 1800s when the tubers were sold to visiting ships as an easily stored food supply for their voyages (White 2003).

Known as khoai mỡ in Vietnam, this yam is used in both sweet and savory dishes. My encounters with khoai mỡ have been pretty limited thus far. I once ordered a cup of che thap cam at Che 278 in District 4 that featured a layer of sweetened khoai mỡ puree. However, now that I know what this purple vegetable is, I’ll be on the lookout for it on menus around town.

According to my mom, the most common preparation of khoai mỡ is in a shrimpy soup called canh khoai mỡ. Coincidentally, The Astronomer recently noticed the owners of one of his favorite bun cha joints slurping down a strange purple broth for their dinner. When he asked what it was, they ladled out an extra bowl for him and invited him to sit down. The soup turned out to be canh khoai mỡ, which he described as “plain.” My mom, on the other hand, couldn’t stop raving about the soup’s deliciousness when I spoke to her. So, I can’t wait to try the yam soup for myself!

Me

While in Phu Quoc, I procured some Vietnamese tamarind candies called me. It was an impulsive junk food purchase, but that’s what vacations are for. I bought a quarter kilogram for 5,000 VND and pretty much finished them the same day because they’re mighty addictive.

The me‘s exterior is covered in coarse sugar crystals and dried chili flakes. The center contains a glossy seed that easily separates from the edible flesh.

The candy initially registers as sweet, but quickly transitions to spicy. The only way to stop my mouth from burning is to pop in another candy to bring my taste buds back to sweet. I guess that’s how I finish them up so quickly!

If you’re a fan of Mexican tamarind candies like Pelon Pelo Rico, this is definitely up your alley.

Chợ Dương Đông – Phú Quốc

Open-air and indoor markets are the heart of the Vietnamese community. Due to the minimal use of refrigeration in the country, residents go to the market nearly everyday to buy fresh produce, tofu, pork, seafood and noodles. Every time I travel to a new city, I always make a point to visit the markets for fruits and people watching.

Duong Dong Market in Phu Quoc is unpaved and packed with vendors on both sides of the narrow and dusty thoroughfare. Produce vendors dominate the scene, but there are a healthy number of non-produce goods as well.

The vendor in the foreground is selling ingredients for che, the vendor in the center is selling fried up slices of banh tet (a cylindrical version of banh chung), and the vendor in the background is selling jackfruit.

Even though these preserved mustard greens (cai chua) are inches away from the grimy street, they still look pretty darn tasty to me. My grandma makes her own preserved mustard greens, but not in bulk like these! I think this sour vegetable tastes best kho‘d with fried tofu and chili flakes.

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Cha gio, greens, bun, nuoc cham… there’s only one thing this woman could be selling—bun cha gio! At 5,000 VND a bowl, The Astronomer just had to have one.

This little piggy went to the market, but he didn’t really have a say in the matter. The Astronomer and I were surprised by how close the vendors worked next to all of these bloody carcases. Even though it makes me a little uncomfortable seeing a dead pig’s head, I think that the meat counters at grocery stores in America should display them because our society is too far removed from our food source.

Ingredients for some refreshing che—grass jelly and coconut jelly (I think!).

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And lastly, a woman serving up banh mi nem nuong or barbecued meat ball sandwiches.

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