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Red Boat Odyssey: Our Fish Sauce Story http://rasamalaysia.com/red-boat-odyssey-our-fish-sauce-story/
July 01st, 2013 39 Comments

Red Boat Odyssey: Our Fish Sauce Story

Red Boat Odyssey

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Some trips are made of dreams, and when they do happen, the dreams transcend into enduring memories that one will forever cherish and treasure. I am a true believer of that.

I was very lucky to be enlisted in a dream trip several weeks ago (May 27th – June 1st) with Red Boat Fish Sauce on an odyssey to Vietnam, a country that evokes expansive glistening greenery, pristine coastline, picturesque landscape, tranquil valleys of rural villages, friendly people, and exquisite cuisine.

My companions were my dear friend Chef Robert Danhi, culinary educator and scientist of Southeast Asian Flavors, the uber talented and quirky Chef Lon Symensma, the gentleman Chef Jeff Stoneking of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro and Gather in Denver, and our generous and honorable host Cuong Pham, owner of Red Boat Fish Sauce. The journey was one of cultural immersion, and more importantly, we set out for our final destination Phu Quoc island on a mission: to learn more about fish sauce, which is the building block of flavor used in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam and Thailand. The rationale is simple: Phu Quoc is known to produce the best fish sauce in the world and 75% of fish sauces sold in the United States are labeled with the words “Phu Quoc” on the bottle even though they are mostly made in Thailand. Essentially, there is no better way to learn, but with Red Boat Fish Sauce, the premium artisanal fish sauce in the market today.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on the morning of May 27th, and would spend six days in Vietnam, traveling from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc island in south of Vietnam. Along the way, our journey took us through the verdant Mekong Delta, before we embarked on a ferry to Phu Quoc island. We would eat, drink, and comb the streets of these places, immersing ourselves in the food, colors, smells, culture, and tradition of Vietnam.

After touching down in Ho Chi Minh City International Airport, Cuong, with his hired mini-van, immediately chauffeured us to a famed restaurant serving hearty bowls of steaming pho, one of the most iconic Vietnamese dishes. Despite being jetlagged and exhausted from the long-haul transpacific flight, I chowed down and thoroughly enjoyed the beef noodle soup. It was delicious!

Pho

After checking into the hotel and a brief freshen-up, the crew were ready and eager to explore. The first stop was Cho Lon Market, the biggest market in Saigon.

Cho Lon Market, Saigon

We sampled an amazing bowl of crab noodle soup or Banh Canh Cua, complete with coagulated duck blood, crab, fried pork rinds, and pork.

Banh Canh Cua

There are countless stalls selling everything from dried mushrooms, cassia barks, beans, rice to dried Chinese sausages. Cho Lon market is a great place to see the daily life of the Vietnamese people.

Chinese Sausages

We all had a huge appetite and the next stop was Banh Xeo, or Vietnamese crepes filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. This crepe was crispy, with a nice aroma of coconut milk, and absolutely delectable.

Banh Xeo

Curious to find out how the “real” Cha Gio (fried Vietnamese spring rolls) tastes in Vietnam, we also had these hot-off-the-frying-wok Cha Gio. The filling was shredded daikon, carrot, and pork.

Cha Gio

For dinner, Cuong took us to a Vietnamese restaurant serving traditional fares. We had pork stew, lemongrass chicken, banana blossom salad, and cat fish sour soup.

Vietnamese Pork Stew

When you had a group of chefs and a food blogger, dinner wouldn’t stop until we had yet another round of food. We headed to an excellent restaurant for crab noodles and fried soft shell crab. We were so stuffed and decided to call it a night, for our stomachs’ sake.

Crab Noodles

The next morning, we started the day early and headed to Cho Ben Thanh market, a large marketplace in downtown Saigon for breakfast. After that, we all piled into the van and headed south to the Mekong River Delta on a pilgrimage to the Cai Rang floating market. No trip to Vietnam is complete without trying its Banh Mi sandwiches, so we stopped for a snack. This Banh Mi was particularly savory with roasted pork belly.

Banh Mi

During the journey, we stumbled upon large oxen wading in murky river water and endless jade-green rice paddy fields that dotted the roadsides. For lunch, Cuong took us to try the famous Hu Tieu. Seated next to a river, we sampled an utterly mouthwatering dry rice noodle dish and a gigantic fried dough ball.

Our fun adventure at the Mekong Delta started at the My Tho pier, where we were transported via a timber motorboat for the island/canal tour. During the boat ride, we passed by many enchanting fisherman’s piers and stilt houses along the riverbank. We stopped by at one of the islands and there, the guys had fun with a giant python while sampling local honey and candied ginger.

Honey Drinks and Candied Ginger

After that, we walked towards the other end of the island and got on these small row boats through the canals, soaking in the fresh air and pristine landscape around and experienced firsthand the rustic local villagers’ daily life. We then stopped by a coconut candy workshop.

Row Boats

Once onshore, we continued our journey to Can Tho, the gateway to the Mekong Delta floating market. We arrived in Can Tho at night. After a brief hotel check-in, we regrouped for a seafood dinner. We had live octopus in a coconut water hotpot, grilled snakehead fish, and grilled river prawn. We didn’t want to go overboard with seafood as there was abundant seafood beckoning at Phu Quoc island.

Grilled Fresh Water Prawn

The next morning, we started our day at dawn to the floating market. To sum it up, this is probably one of the highlights of the entire trip. From the pier at Can Tho, Cai Rang floating market is a brief 20-minute boat ride away. Our boat cruised along the Mekong waterway while the breeze gently caressed our cheeks, with the early sun rays peeking through from the horizon.

Cai Rang Floating Market, Vietnam

Cai Rang floating market is one of the three largest floating markets in Vietnam where local vendors commune, in their boats, trading fresh fruits and produce sourced from and grown in the surrounding region. Every boat sports a long upright pole at its bow on which samples of the goods for sale are hung on. There are boats selling drinks (aka mobile mini bar per our tour guide), gas station in the middle of the river, and smaller wooden boats with vendors selling breakfast such as noodles.

Cai Rang Floating Market

The floating market was lively, vibrant, and buzzing with activities. We had our breakfast noodle on the boat.

Noodles at Cai Rang Floating Market

Cai Rang floating market at the Mekong Delta was a tremendously humbling experience as I witnessed the simple lifestyle of these boat denizens. It was mesmerizing!

The crew flashed the biggest smile on our face being in the floating market. We were so happy!

We continued our journey to Ha Tien for the ferry to Phu Quoc island. After a 2-hour boat ride, we finally arrived at our final destination.

Phu Quoc Island Pier

Phu Quoc island is every bit as I have imagined. It is still a sleepy island with very moderate development, completely laid back, and screams tropical island paradise. This is the final leg of our journey, the home of Red Boat Fish Sauce, where local black anchovies caught off the coast of the island are used in the fish sauce. Our hotel is right on the main hotel strip, a 15-minute walking distance to the town area and the vibrant nightly street market.

Phu Quoc

We celebrated our arrival to Phu Quoc with the glorious seafood at the night market. We had an amazing seafood feast of various shell fish, grilled prawn, scallop, and squid. It was heavenly.

Grilled Squid, Night Market, Phu Quoc

The next two days, we searched around the island for good food made with the prized local fish sauce. The guys got the motorbikes and I tagged along for some joyrides around the island.

The guys also went on a fishing trip which I skipped. They had a ton of fun.

The last full day in Phu Quoc, we started our day shopping at the local market. We were going to have a beach cookout and dinner where everyone would cook for our host Cuong and his friends.

Everyone bought bags of ingredients and we couldn’t wait for the beach cookout that night.

After the market, at long last, we visited Red Boat Fish Sauce factory, the ultimate reason we all came to Vietnam. The factory is spotless clean, and built right by the river to facilitate the shipping of the fish sauce to Ho Chi Minh City for bottling. The factory appears more like a winery than a fish sauce factory.

Cuong explained the artisanal process of the fish sauce making. The small migratory anchovies are in abundant supply around the waters of Phu Quoc island; the highest quality fish and the traditional year-long fermentation methods resulting in fish sauce sought after by the world’s cooks and chefs alike.

These are fresh black anchovies caught by the local fishermen and are salted immediately on the boat. The salting process draws out the blood and impurities of the anchovies. As soon as the fishermen are back on the island, the anchovies are transported to the factory for fermentation. They are dunked into the giant wooden barrels for one year. No additives are used. After one year, the fish sauce is ready for bottling.

This is the first press (or extra virgin/first draining) of the Red Boat Fish Sauce, with a beautiful and clear deep, amber, and almost golden color. We tasted the fish sauce right off the barrel. It was an umami bomb with the cleanest of taste: rich, savory, salty, and just a hint of sweetness. There is absolutely no foul smell or flavor found in other cheaper brands. It is practically the juice and essence of the anchovies, purest to its core. In Vietnam, the quality of fish sauce is measured by the nitrogen content per one liter of the product. It signifies how much of the naturally fermented fish has actually become part of the fish sauce –the higher the degree, expressed in °N, the higher quality the fish sauce is.

While most fish sauce marks 25°N, Red Boat’s 40°N and 50°N are precisely fish sauce gold. Put simply, Red Boat Fish Sauce is the highest grade fish sauce available in the market today. If you are a professional chef or serious home cook, you would be crazy to not discover Red Boat Fish Sauce.

We are going to have our own fish sauce cuvee to mark our trip to Phu Quoc. And here was the “ceremony” where everyone threw the black anchovies into our barrel. Our cuvee will be ready in about one year, which is around May 31, 2014. How cool is that?

Back to the hotel, we were ready for the beach cookout and dinner. Chef Robert Danhi made this gorgeous looking fish sauce chicken stew.

I made tamarind prawn, flavored with Red Boat Fish Sauce.

Chef Jeff and his calamari and mango salad.

Chef Lon was cooking his clams.

Chef Lon and I also made this spicy Chinese fermented tofu “腐乳” morning glory or ong choy.

The backdrop of the dinner, we watched the sunset while enjoying the dinner and having great conversations. The dinner marked the end of our trip as everyone was leaving the next morning.

Like all journeys, Red Boat Odyssey had to come to an end, but an auspicious one that opens up to more exciting adventures of the same kind, only at different destinations. After leaving Vietnam, the crew had already cooked up a plan to reunite at ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro in Denver, with a special Red Boat themed dinner prepared by none other but the three chefs and one home cook/food blogger, who just completed the journey, and are now bustling with ideas and inspirations to tease and to feast the palates with their new dishes inspired by the trip. Isn’t this exciting? And it would be more exciting if we have you to share the excitement and experience along our journey. I’ll keep you posted on our next Odyssey. Stay with me.

Chefs’ Quotes about Red Boat Fish Sauce:

“Red Boat fish sauce has taken quality to a new level by offering chefs a superior ingredient that elevates even the simplest dish. Its depth and purity are evident when you see the care that goes into each bottle. I am honored to have experienced the Red Boat process and will never work with another fish sauce again.”

Lon Symensma, Executive Chef/Owner, ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro and Gather, Denver

“A big thanks to Red Boat Fish Sauce and Cuong Pham for taking the time to enlighten me on this amazing product. I have used fish sauce for years throughout my career knowing nothing more than it was a fishy, salty and funky ingredient. I now have a renewed appreciation for fish sauce in general; especially the time, attention and passion that Cuong puts into every step of the process at Red Boat.”

Jeff Stoneking, Sous Chef, ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro and Gather, Denver

Pho:

Pho Tau Bay
433-435 Ly Thai To, District 10
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Banh Xeo:

Banh Xeo 46A
46A D Dinh Cong Trang
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Traditional Vietnamese Food:

Hoang Yen
148 Hai Ba Trung Street, Dist1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Crab Noodles and Seafood:

Quan 94
94 Dinh Tien Hoang, DaKoa Ward, Dist. 1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Hu Tieu (Dry Rice Noodles):

Hu Tieu My Tho
Nga ba Trung Luong
My Tho, Vietnam

Seafood:

Dinh Cau nigh market
Phu Quoc island, Vietnam

*This article is written by Bee Yinn Low, with inputs from Robert Danhi, and contributions from Lon Symensma and Jeff Stoneking. Photography by Bee Yinn Low, Robert Danhi, and B.0.7 Studio of Vietnam. Our trips were proudly sponsored by Red Boat Fish Sauce.

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39 comments... read them below or add one

  1. Joelle says:

    Bee, what a wonderful journal of your trip. Vietnam has always been high up on my bucket list. Thanks for the beautiful post!

  2. Wow Bee what an adventure! The food looks delicious!

  3. That is one trip I would love to take! What a great foodie adventure.

  4. Michael says:

    Beautiful shots and delicious food. Glad that you had a good time in Nam.

  5. Vi Nguyen says:

    Welcome to Vietnam, Rasa :D
    I’m a big fan of you and i’m so glad to read about your VN trip. Next time pls go to visit Hanoi – our capital :)
    You’ll be suprised by many kind of foods in HN :D

    • Hi Vi, thanks. Great to know that I have a Vietnamese fan. Oh yes, I would love to go to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, and everywhere. This is just the beginning. :)

      • Vi Nguyen says:

        Hi Rasa,
        Thanks for your feedback. You should visit Hanoi in autumn (from Sep – Oct)
        In autumn, the weather is very nice so the food is better than normal :D Wait to see your entry about Hanoi.

        Welcome to Vietnam :)

  6. Bee – it was quite an adventure traveling with you – some fun time cooking, laughing and cruising the Mekong Delta in various boats!

    • Robert – you forgot the part about you guys poking fun, teasing, “traumatizing” me for the entire 6 days! Haha. All good and fun. Best. Group. Trip. EVER.

  7. Vietnam looks like a lot of fun

  8. Quynh-Vy says:

    believe it or not, I go to your website to find Vietnamese recipes and many other Asian recipes such as Thai & Japanese (since my husband is Japanese). They are awesome. You have the best shaking beef recipe ever. You will find those destinations you mentioned: Hoi An, Da Nang, Halong bay even more intriguing than your last trip, I promise you thạt

    btw, thanks for the Belacan Yam Leaf (Sweet Potato Leaf) Recipe
    everyone single one in my family and friends love it

    • Hi Quynh, awww, thanks for your sweet comment. Oh yes, I have no doubt that Hoi An, Danang, Halong Bay, will top what I had just experienced. This is just the beginning…thanks!

  9. Well written as always. Love the photos. Hoping to head over to Laos and Vietnam in 2014. They say jealousy is a bad thing. But in this case i can’t help myself being extremely envious/jealous at “nam” and the surrounding you guys were in.

  10. After just buying fish sauce and seeing Red Boat at about twice the price of others, I can now understand why it costs so much. Great trip, great article and what looks like great fish sauce. I can say that bad fish sauce really makes everything taste-well, bad!

  11. Lan Heng says:

    What a wonderful journal of your adventure. I learned a lot about fish sauce and is excited about shopping for the right kind now. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Some day I would love to visit Vietnam.

  12. Marlene says:

    The pictures of the food are beautiful. Any chance you can recreate any of them?

  13. Moby says:

    You make it sounds so enticing!

  14. cherie says:

    Bee what a special trip – so glad you got to enjoy it and thanks for sharing it with us!

  15. Pat says:

    We were just in Vietnam last November but we didn’t have time for Phu Quoc, thanks for sharing your experience, it’ll be on my list next time!

  16. S.C. LEE says:

    The food looks yummy. Where can I buy this sauce in Penang?

  17. Jayne Lee says:

    I’ve been dreaming of visiting Vietnam for years. My husband visited Saigon some years before we were married. One day we’ll go together. Wish I was with you on that trip! I can live on pho alone.

  18. Sue C says:

    What an interesting log of your travels and experiences in Vietnam. It’s always lovely if you have a local who acts as your guide to the local food and the places which are a must to visit. You were really blessed to have your Vietnamese host!More importantly, the facts about the fish sauce factory were interesting; henceforth I shall read the labels of the varieties available in the supermarkets with a better understand of the quality.

  19. julie says:

    what an incredible trip! loved all the photos, places you went, and hearing your stories. i just got back from vietnam, where i also met with cuong in phu quoc for some research, so it’s really fun to see your post! thanks for taking such good notes too – i hope to check out some of the places you listed next time i go!

  20. JulieD says:

    Loved following you on your trip on instagram and thank you for sharing it! Looks so wonderful. I have only been to Vietnam once to visit family and the one thing I miss is the Banh Canh Cua!!

  21. kitchenprincess3526 says:

    Wow! That all sounds so amazing!! I am Vietnamese and I’ve always wanted to go to Vietnam to eat all the food there that I know and love. This post has made me even more excited to go! The boats looked like so much fun. And my sweet tooth got to me when I read about that candied ginger. ^-^ Thanks for sharing this. Now I think I’m going to go to my grandma’s house for some pho.

  22. Mark says:

    Hey Bee, we are definitely jealous here. Looked like a wonderful trip. Thanks for the sharing the great pics too. I’m dying for that grilled squid and for the kang kong (with a little sambal on it).

  23. adrian says:

    I’m originally from Chicago and I was in Vietnam also around the same time you were there. I was there the month of July. Went to Phu Quoc myself and I loved it. Had 6 bottles of fish sauce shipped to my friends house in mainland and took it back with me to USA. I had the privilege of visiting most of north Vietnam since I was there longer. It made such an impact on me that I’m planning to go back and hope to live there. Great post. Phu Quoc fish sauce is unlike anything else you can find in USA or any where else in the world.

  24. Cynthia says:

    Wow, I had never heard of Red Boat sauce but it looks delicious and definitely a high-quality ingredient that I will be searching for! I have been following your blog for all kinds of recipes for a year now and they have always been easy and delicious. I am a huge fan of Asian food but used to be intimidated that I could not master the flavors since I didn’t grow up with them. Your recipes finally gave me the confidence and opened the door to so many new destinations! The photography and writing is always great as well and very accessible, it’s the only website I go to now for Asian recipes. Thank you for sharing your journey with us, looking forward to trying your new recipes from your Vietnam trip.

  25. unkaleong says:

    Makes me feel like booking a ticket to Vietnam…like now! I haven’t been there before.

    How does the taste compare to Thai fish sauce?

  26. Courtney says:

    Hi Bee – my husband and I have just started a year+ journey through SE Asia, and we are currently on Phu Quoc. I am dying to visit the Red Boat factory (the stuff is legendary, after all!), but I am having a really hard time a) finding info about tours online and b) finding the factory itself on Phu Quoc. Do you know where in Duong Dong they are located? We drove our motorbikes around town today for 2 hours, and we still couldn’t find it. Any advice you have would be much appreciated! P.S. Loved your post and ate at of the same spots in HCMC. That crab at Quan 94…wow.

  27. Courtney says:

    Hi Bee – thanks for responding. I also sent a note to their info@redboat email address, and they informed me that tours in English only happen a few times a month, and the man who gives them is out of the country until December. We left on Friday. Oh well – next time!

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