Fermented Fish

A Season In An Earthenware Jar
Vietnam Heritage, June-July 2011 — One day, novelist Nguyen Quang Sang came to Bac Lieu Province in the Mekong Delta and invited me for a meal. I went to see him, taking with me a jar of fermented fish (mắm), made in Vinh Hung, as a rustic present for a guest from the big city.But I was worried when the fermented fish was served. Sang was so famous for his literary gift, and I personally knew him as a connoisseur of dishes and wines. His companion that day was Hai, owner of a well-known restaurant in Saigon.After taking a roll with boiled pork and vegetables dipped in the mắm and a sip of rice liquor, the novelist thought for a moment and nodded, ‘Wonderful!’ And Hai, a big eater, ate only the mắm, among many delicious dishes.

Fermented fish is exceptional because you never forget its taste and because on a table full of various dishes it always dominates.  Residents in the Mekong Delta have reason to be proud of this food. Ways of making fermented fish differ from province to province. Production reached its peak about thirty years ago when fish were abundant and freezing techniques were not so widespread. Nowhere is the use of fermented fish more prevalent or the ways of making it more diverse than in provinces along the Mekong River.

The Khmer people make their own fermented fish, called ‘mắm bò hóc’, from freshwater fish. The Vietnamese produce salty or sour fermented fish or shrimp. Three peoples in the Mekong Delta, the Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese, are connoisseurs and producers.

My elder and younger sisters clean fish and lay them in the sun to dry then take them into the kitchen, where my mother spices them, usually with salt and roasted rice powder. The spiced fish are layered in big earthenware jars, covered with nipa palm leaves and clamped with thin bars of bamboo.

Only after helping my mother for years had my sisters learned how to produce fermented fish, because it is difficult. The fish may become black and smelly in some jars because of faulty technique. The art is handed down generation to generation.
In provinces along the Mekong River, every family knows how to make fermented fish, because they need to. The art makes the best use of small fish that otherwise could not be sold. It has served instead of fresh fish in the rainy season when fields flood and the latter are difficult to catch. In the past, there were no fish farms to ensure a reliable supply of fresh fish in the Mekong Delta year round. Images of big jars and the smell of fermented fish in kitchens of rural houses remain in the memories of those who migrate away.

A friend of mine who is from a rural town has achieved some fame in literary circles. He told me, ‘One day I was writing and my inspiration went high and words poured from my pen when I smelled fermented fish from a vendor of  rice vermicelli in fermented-fish soup. My limbs went numb. I sat there and felt homesick, remembering the rainy season in my village and my poor mother who raised us with rice balls and fermented fish. I burst into tears.’

Fermented fish is also present in all towns and cities in the Mekong Delta, and Saigon and Phnom Penh as well.

Besides fermented fish produced for family use, there is an army of professional makers of fermented fish. After Tet Festival, they form groups of two or three, load their boats with jars and salt and row to Ca Mau at the southern tip of the Delta where they buy a section of ditch or a pond to catch fish or they go into mangrove forests to catch fish. They may stay there for months catching fish and fermenting them until all their jars are full.

In Bac Lieu Province in the past there was a gypsy way of producing fermented fish. In Bac Lieu then, there were waste and flood fields of hundreds of hectares where only some kinds of high, wild grass could exist. Rumour had it that snake-head mullet there could weigh five to seven kilos. In the dry season, fermented-fish-makers would transport jars and salt to these fields, put up tents and catch fish.

Fish takes from three to four months to ferment but the longer the better. Rural residents usually open their fermented-fish jars when the rainy season comes. At that time of the year, the land is green with various kinds of wild green vegetables and peasants start cutting grass and sowing rice. They usually prepare breakfast before dawn, and the smell of fermented fish springs from one kitchen after another.

Mothers steam a fermented snake-head mullet and pack some rice balls for their sons to take to the fields. Rice balls and fermented fish constitute daily meals for all ploughmen. When the sons come home from work at dusk they are served fermented fish and wild green vegetables. When the son comes home early and the cooking pot is not ready, he may pick a red chili, get a fermented snakeskin gourami [a common kind of fish] and eat them with cold rice.

When friends visit, they are served a dish of fermented shrimp along with sliced green ginger, stems of night-scented lily, winged bean and leaves of wild water mint, and they roast a walking catfish. At noon, when bored, boys and girls take some fermented fish on a small boat and have it with mangrove apples, to pass the time.

In Tan Duc and Tan Thuan Communes, Dam Doi District, a fish-rich hollow in Ca Mau Province, locals produce a specialty called mắm lòng (fermented fish-entrails). It is usually served with garlic, red chili, vinegar and coconut meat. The dish is so delicious that, as the saying goes, it is served to relatives on the father’s side only.

In Vinh Hung, Bac Lieu Province, a new kind of mắm has been produced and it can free you from worries about fish-bones. This famous fermented fish is what I offered to writer Nguyen Quang Sang.

Palate Tickler Raises A Stink
(No.3, Vol.3, Apr 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)http://www.vietnamheritage.com.vn/pages/en/16413105556203-Palate-tickler-raises-a-stink.html

 Pickled EggplantFrom left: Pickled eggplant; Mắm ruốc (fermented shrimp paste); Tôm chua (fermented sour shrimp). Photo: Truong Vung.  Sour Shrimp PasteTôm chua or fermented sour shrimp and shrimp paste (in small cans) on sale at Dong Ba market, Hue.
Photo: Nguyen Van Thanh

Mắm ruốc, or fermented shrimp paste, is made from small shrimp. The final product is a purple- brown paste with the sweet taste of seafood and a strong odor.
I do not know exactly when the tradition of making mắm ruốc originated from my hometown; yet, it must date back to a long, long time ago.
I spent my childhood surrounded by giant urns of mắm ruốc. The taste and the smell of mắm ruốc were as familiar to me as the taste of new rice and the aroma of freshly-cut straw.

Each year, in spring and in fall, almost all families in my home village in rural Hue in central Vietnam would hold a ceremony to give thanks to the earth genie. Among the main traditional dishes offered to the spirits were mắm ruốc and boiled vegetables. The mắm ruốc must be pure, that is to say free of spices. The ingredients for the vegetable dish must be young shoots of sweet potatoes, which remains fresh and green even when cooked.

I went to Bo De high school in Danang and got the nickname ‘mắm ruốc guy’. It was then when it dawned on me that mắm ruốc was what that identified us, the villagers, and our homeland. Later on, after I immigrated to the USA, and until now, quite often I still wonder why Americans, while they love such fermented products as sourdough, cheese, yogurt and pickles, are not fond of mắm, the extracts from the fermentation of fish, shrimps, crabs, etc.

When it comes to mắm ruốc, westerners and many modern Vietnamese are mixed up between rotten food and fermented food. mắm ruốc is a fermented food and absolutely not something rotten.

In fact, some nations or groups of people around the world tend to like their food slightly spoiled. They have a reason for their own lifestyle. Food expert Henley McKenry studied the Botumm tribe in Middle Africa in order to find an explanation on slightly spoiled food. The reason he got from them was that even after elephants, tigers, etc. have died, their cells are not completely dead, and there are still spasms-the last effort to fight the enemy. Therefore, the consumption of fresh meat is unhealthy. The invisible antigens are yet to be tamed, or they’ll resist the humans’ body. The antigens are believed to cause indigestion, ailments, and aggression (A Review of the Strange Recipes; NY; 95).

M.D. Le Van Lan, a real expert, and in my opinion, he is by no means second to Dr. McKenry, said, ‘whatever deserves to be called mắm must be aquacultural products fermented with sea salt for a long time under the magic of nature’ (Research on Eating Habits, page 51.’)

Hue mắm is not just an aquacultural food, but the concept includes also local agricultural products such as cucumber mắm or eggplant mắm.

Throughout human history, rock salt, with its two basic elements, sodium and chlorine ions, has worked as country people’s antibiotic, a wonder medicine for thousands of years, a treatment for sore eyes, lumps, bruises, stomach aches and toothaches.

For Asian nations, mắm making is a natural way of survival. Mountain tribes in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia preserve their wild game by exposing it to smoke until it is dry. This is similar to Westerners’ meat smoking practice. Meanwhile, lowlanders and sea folk save their food by salting, sugaring, pickling, or fermentation.

Salting and fermenting are very similar. Salting is the preservation of food with dry edible salt. Fermentation is also a process of controlling bacteria, yeast, and moulds to keep food from going bad, but with other herbs and spices added to make it taste more like mắm.

If only Chuong Duong Street in downtown Hue were renamed Mắm ruốc Street, like how Kim Chee Street in South Korea, Teriyaki Street in Japan, or Yogurt Street in the USA are named after fermented dishes. Chuong Duong Street is lined with mắm stalls of all kinds, all tastes, all smells, and all colors. The yellow-green pieces of fermented veggie, which are both eye-catching and nose-catching, remind passers-by of traditional home-cooked meals and make their mouth water.
Mắm ruốc stalls also dominate the rural areas surrounding Hue city. They can be found right in the gateway to the village, at the open-air farmer markets, just about everywhere.

Throughout the year, Hue has a specific kind of mắm for each season.

In the winter-spring period, there are scad mắm, flying fish mắm, mackerel mắm, tuna mắm or sour shrimp mắm. In the spring-summer period, there are a whole variety of vegetable mắm. For the fall-winter time there are anchovy mắm or consorted mắm, which are the extracts of more than one kind of fish.

The kinds of mắm which are available at any time are sour shrimp paste, heavily-spiced fish paste (mắm nem), or oyster paste. The authentic paste is the one made from Lang Co oysters, which is the oyster paste champion. However, generally speaking, oyster paste, no matter where the oysters come from, is good.

Mắm jars were technically Vietnamese people’s most ancient refrigerators. In the old good days, fish and shrimp were abundant; the folks preserved them for the rainy days. Mắm was not just the food of the poor; it was also a delicacy of upper-class people.

From the original mắm nêm (heavily spiced fish paste), Hue people have come up with a wide variety of mắm, and each has its own taste and smell.
However, all in all, Hue mắm can be grouped into three categories: salty, sour, and sweet.

The original and most common is nam nem, which can be made from anchovy, baby scads, or hakes. Rural Hue people make mắm nem by mixing fish paste with fresh hot pepper, ground hot pepper, lemon juice, sugar, garlic then dip pickle, or fig fruit and eggplants in it. Mắm nem is a unique condiment, which goes very well with rice, boiled vegetable, rice cakes, or soup. The strong smell of mắm nem is required for jackfruit and wild betel leaf soup, Indian taro soup, and leopard silk soup. Mắm nêm also makes the soul for the rice noodles of Hue and Danang.

Fermented sour shrimp (mắm tôm chua) is also a kind of mắm but Hue people don’t call it that; instead they name it just ‘tôm chua’- sour shrimp. This kind of condiment can be found throughout the country, yet made-in- Hue tom chua is still the best. It features the special aroma of gangling ale root, garlic combined with the sweet taste of shrimp meat. Sour shrimp with boiled bacon pork and pickled mungbien sprouts is just irresistible; cucumber and lettuce when added will just make it more than perfect.

Eggplant mắm is very also very popular in Hue. By the end of spring, the skinny limbs on the eggplants are laden with fist-size fruit, white, or green. This happens to be also the season of anchovy and scad. Slices of juicy and fresh eggplant look as if they were just picked. The fish juice soaked in makes the skin and the core of the eggplant stick together and the whole thing crispy. Eggplant mắm can be made from raw eggplants, steamed eggplants or stewed eggplants. My favourite type is brewed eggplants brined in small shrimp paste mixed with hot pepper. It makes a perfect meal on a winter day.

According to physician Pham Tue, fresh eggplants are yin and are not recommended for sick people whose body contains a higher level of yin elements. When supported by salt, eggplants become yang. Dipped in shrimp or fish paste eggplants are then both yang and nutritious and become a good food for the winter when human body needs a lot of energy.

Mắm ruốc has many functions in the Hue people’s daily recipes. When added with lemon juice, garlic, hot pepper and sugar, it is the condiment for fig fruit, pickle and star fruit, which is the favourite snack food for Hue people. Mắm ruốc is also the base for almost all the local recipes, without which the dishes would be tasteless, like soulless good-looking eyes.

Royal Hue mắm

Like most of other Hue dishes, vulgar mắm also found itself a place on the royals’ dining table overnight.

In Vietnam’s very first royal cookbook ‘One Hundred Recipes’, Truong Thi Bich described the ways to make fancy mắm such as mullet mắm, rabbit fish and roasted rice mắm , baby tuna mắm , tuna guts mắm , tuna and eggplants mắm, soup base mắm, heavily-spiced mắm, crab roe mắm, or fermented sergestid shrimp. The mắm mentioned there is all very complicated and requires great caution and attention to details. To put it in another way, it is a real piece of art.

In 1960, the Thai royal couple paid Hue an official visit. Ngo Dinh Can, the warlord of central Vietnam at the time, held a thoroughly-planned welcome party for the king and the queen. Of the 10 Hue delicacies made with mắm ruốc, the most popular was eggplants with tuna paste, prepared by Ha Thi Da from Tay Loc, which was started half a year before.

First, the guts and the gills of fresh tuna were kept, and then they were then thoroughly cleaned, and drained before being salted. The fish-salt ratio was either 6-1 or 4-1. (The saltier it is, the longer it takes for the mắm to be ready). The mixture then was stored in a big jar, well pressed and sealed and put in the sun for successive 15 days. When air bubbles appeared on the top of the jar, it was time to prepare the eggplants.

Eggplants must be the white kind, not too young not too old. The stem has to be maintained while the green part removed.

Next came the soaking of the eggplants in salt water overnight. Then they were rinsed with water the next morning, then drained and dried in the open-air shade.
The last step was mixing the eggplants with the tuna paste, adding garlic, galanga roots, hot pepper, and sugar. The mixture then was put under the sun for 15-20 days before serving.
Poet Pham Nha Uyen, currently residing in Stockton, USA, said the Thai royals complimented the dish; and the Hue government awarded his mother, Mrs. Ha Thi Da, a sum of money large enough to build the family’s kitchen.

The uniqueness of mắm lies in the regional recipes. In the south, there are many kinds of mắm, Thai mắm, cod mắm, mud carp mắm, dwarf gourami mắm, snakehead mắm, butter catfish mắm, knife fish mắm, freshwater crab mắm, small shrimp mắm, fish gut mắm, you name it. Yet, only adventure-lovers have the chance and the guts to try rat mắm, turtle mắm, cobra mắm, or frog leg mắm, as the preparation of those kinds of paste requires extreme experience and expertise.

In the central-land region, there are fish gut mắm of Phu Yen or Khanh Hoa, cod mắm of Phan Thiet, squid mắm, pineapple fish or shrimp mắm, flying fish with roasted rice mắm of Quang Nam.

Meanwhile, the North is home to saltwater crab mắm, small saltwater shrimp paste, and sand-worm mắm.

By Tran Kiem Doan