A Visit to Red Boat Fish Sauce in Vietnam

When I realized we were going to Vietnam, I decided not to start making lists of places to go or things to eat, like I often do. (I’m learning to say “Yes” to less-scheduled vacations.) Fortunately, a friend who lives with her family in Ho Chi Minh City planned almost our entire trip for us, and I was happy to relinquish the role to her.

When it included a short hop to the island of Phu Quoc, famous for its fish sauce (as well as its pepper), the only plans I made for our entire vacation were to visit Red Boat fish sauce, one of my all-time favorite condiments. When we got to Phu Quoc, I quickly learned that “fish sauce factory” visits are on the tourist circuit, but they were with other companies and Red Boat is distinctly different than the rest. While their facility isn’t open to the public, I sent a message and learned we were mutual fans. So a date was set, and off we went.

It’s hard to imagine a meal in Vietnam without fish sauce featuring prominently into a dish or a sauce. If you eat street food, you’ll find a bottle on the table, used to season food. The dish, above, called Bánh bèo are little steamed rice cakes with chopped shrimp and crispy fried pork rinds, which we enjoyed in Hué at Hahn, served with a dish of fish sauce alongside. (I was also served an entire half-bottle of vodka, just for myself, which was listed as “local rice wine” on the menu.) Caramelized chicken and Caramel ribs are other dishes that rely on fish sauce, which is naturally rich in glutamates, for their tangy, umami-rich flavor. And rice noodle salads are often doused with fish sauce as well.

Red Boat fish sauce, I found out, is off-the-beaten-path, and even the people at our hotel, who grew up on the island, had no idea how to get there. I understood why Cuong Pham, the owner (above), said, “Best to have the taxi driver call me. I’ll tell him how to get here.”

I saw what he meant when we pulled into a narrow driveway, that didn’t look like it would lead to much from the street. The streets in Vietnam seem to be a jumble of everything, with different kinds of shops and restaurants, and other kinds of businesses, all mixed together. I was amazed at what kinds of businesses I randomly came across just walking around or passing on our motor scooter.

Adjacent to the Red Boat fermenting barrels is the river where the black anchovies are caught and hauled in by their boats. Other fish sauces might be made with other kinds of fish (such as sardines or squid, but Red Boat only uses wild anchovies.

One of the secrets to their fish sauce, which is why it isn’t as “fishy” as other fish sauces, is that the anchovies are salted on the boat, right after they’re caught, so they stay fresh. Other fish sauce makers may salt the fish a few days later, when the fish are not exactly at their prime. And we all know that fresh fish doesn’t get any better the longer it sits.

The salt is also special. It’s harvested not far from their docks, and before it’s used, it’s “matured” for three months before using it, which mellows it, and reduces its harshness. Cuong noted that the three factors that contribute to the good flavor of their particular fish sauce are the quality and freshness of the anchovies, the salt, and the fermenting environment.

Inside their warehouses, just next to where the four fish boats that drop off the anchovies a couple of times a week were parked, is a large room filled with squat, tangerine-colored barrels. Each barrel holds about 13 to 14 tons of salted anchovies. They use about 32% to 35 % salt and don’t add anything else, such as MSG or sugar. The warehouse has a thin roof and can get very hot in the afternoon sun, which was why our visit was scheduled fairly early in the morning, and that heat is one of the factors that helps their sauce ferment properly.

You can see from the jar on the left, below, what the anchovies and salt look like after they’ve been marinating in salt for a short time.

To show us the difference in the sauce over the course of the year it takes to ferment and age, Cuong drained off fish sauce from several different barrels, allowing us to see and taste the difference between sauce aged for 3, 6, 9 months, as well as fish sauce aged for 12 months, when it’s done and bottled. He pointed out the three-month aged sauce was lighter in color and had a rougher taste when we dipped our spoons into it, than the sauces that had been aged longer. Tasting them all, it was remarkable how the longer aging gave the sauce a substantially deeper flavor.

Also as the fish sauce ages, the color gets progressively deeper. Interesting, Cuong had a plate of mango slices alongside the bowls of sauce. In addition to being amazing mangoes – the fruit in Vietnam was pretty phenomenal – mangoes are the perfect palate cleanser for the salty sauce. Who knew?

As our tastes change, Cuong told me that in America, fish sauce isn’t necessarily considered an Asian ingredient anymore, as people are using it for lots of other kinds of cooking, including carne asada, pan-roasted brussels sprouts, and even cocktails.

Elsewhere, it’s still a rather uncommon ingredient, and although stores that specialize in Asian ingredients sell standard fish sauce, it’s hard to track down Red Boat in France. (Someone tipped me off to a mail order source, La Maison du Vietnam and it’s also available on Amazon Germany, which ships to many countries in the EU.) The Red Boat website in the UK will also ship.

In the United States, it’s sold at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and on Amazon. I’ve considered bringing it back with me, but concerned about the pungent bottle opening, and infusing the contents of my suitcase in fish sauce. (I worked in a southeast Asian restaurant back in San Francisco and someone dropped a bottle of fish sauce in the dining room, which heavily scented the room for several days after.) One product that was new to me, that I learned about in Phu Quoc, was Red Boat salt, which is definitely taking a one-way trip back to France with me. Wow, was that good! And definitely more suitcase-friendly.

Cuong told me it was especially delicious rubbed into meat before grilling, and after I posted a picture of the salt on my Instagram page, it got over 5k likes, attesting to the power of umami. My friend Andrea Nguyen posted a recipe for a Super Umami Steak, rubbed with the salt shortly after I put up that picture, that looks delicious and gives a good overview of how the salt can be used. Due to the startling low luggage limits on VietJet, just 7 kilos per person (and $100 if you go over), I didn’t want to risk taking a bag of the salt back with me, but I’m going to hunt some of that down next time I’m in the States.

Finally, we tasted Red Boat Phamily Reserve fish sauce, which was outstanding and worth the extra price. (It’s available on their website and Amazon.) The fish sauce is aged in bourbon and maple barrels, then finished with a light smoking. While the salt was intriguing, this family-reserve fish sauce was extra special, truly the best for last.


[Note: I got a lot of inquiries where to get Red Boat fish sauce, salt, and other products, when I posted about them on social media so I’ve included links to various places where you can find it in the post. Due to the nature of the product, it’s availability can vary. While Red Boat has distributors in several countries, it can be a challenge to track down outside the United States, nut they are in the midst of building their European distribution. I’ve given some links in the post, and you can also use my tips for Finding Foods and Other Items Online.]

 

 

See how the famous fish sauce is made in Vietnam!

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51 comments

  • Gavrielle
    February 7, 2019 11:56am

    Well, you’ve 100% sold me on Red Boat. Luckily it’s not hard to get here in NZ.

    There’s some really lovely photography in this post. Kudos! Reply

  • Paul
    February 7, 2019 12:16pm

    Here in the New York City metro area, you can find Red Boat at Fairway stores – even the larger bottle. Great stuff and a great article about how it’s made. Thanks! Reply

    • Cara
      February 7, 2019 1:46pm

      That’s where I get mine too. Easily sourcing so many different types of food is yet another reason I love living in NYC! Reply

  • Beth
    February 7, 2019 1:26pm

    Hey David! I just got back from Vietnam a little over a week ago and I also went to Hanh in Hue while I was there. Small world!

    In Saigon, my favorite restaurant (maybe of the whole trip ) was Cuc Gach Quan… Reply

    • Maryanne
      February 7, 2019 3:01pm

      This was such a cool article. I always buy Red Boat and now I know why! Thanks for sharing the story and great pics. Reply

  • Vickie
    February 7, 2019 1:56pm

    Red Boat is my favorite fish sauce, and fortunately I can buy it at Whole Foods. I am going to try the salt. Reply

  • Sandra Myers
    February 7, 2019 2:30pm

    It sounds like a fascinating trip. Do you bring a box of ziploc bags with you to put hopefully not spillable things in to arrive home safely? Reply

  • Heather
    February 7, 2019 2:31pm

    I LOVE RED BOAT FISH SAUCE! This article was so cool! Reply

  • Mike Smith
    February 7, 2019 2:57pm

    Two more items for my Whole Foods shopping list. Merci, David! Reply

  • Victoria
    February 7, 2019 2:59pm

    I got my Red Boat Fish Sauce at Kalustyan’s in NYC. I also get my REAL Hungarian (not Hungarian-style) paprika there, as well as tellicherry peppercorns. This is a great place to poke around; leave yourself plenty of time. Reply

  • Simona Ginsburg
    February 7, 2019 3:29pm

    Interesting that they use anchovies; since I dislike the fishy taste of the common fish sauces, intuitively I decided to use Lea & Perkins Worcestershire sauce instead; looking at it label now, I see that it contains anchovies! Reply

  • Kathleen Sawtell
    February 7, 2019 4:29pm

    Red Boat fan!!! Buy directly from the red boat website, if you’re able to. I had a horrible, stinky experience with amazon. Reply

  • Peter Young
    February 7, 2019 6:32pm

    Our local Costco in Mountain View, CA now has cases of Red Boat on display. Reply

  • February 7, 2019 6:39pm

    Be careful where you order it from! I ordered some from Amazon and whoever their suppler was shipped it in a cardboard document envelope. It shattered in transit and left my local post office stinking to high heaven!! I’ve promised them never to mail order it again. But it is great stuff! Reply

  • BL
    February 7, 2019 7:20pm

    Hi David – Amazon Canada sells Red Boat Fish Sauce for $29 CAD – only $22 USD Reply

    • February 7, 2019 8:20pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks. The salt, on the Red Boat website, is $15US. But with shipping, it may take it to that price. Sometimes on Amazon there are third-party vendors that sell things for more than the list price so it helps to check around : ) Reply

  • LayChin
    February 7, 2019 8:00pm

    Absolutely, Red Boat!! Don’t trust other brands. I once ruined a Thai themed bookclub lunch because all that our neighborhood store had were the cheap stuff (extremely salty & pungent). I notified the store owner & now they have Red Boat in stock! I am eager to try the salt : ) Reply

  • Diane
    February 7, 2019 8:30pm

    Red Boat is delicious! So interestimg to know how it’s made. Thank you!
    I bought a big bottle at Costco in Sacramento, CA last week Reply

  • Gael N
    February 7, 2019 8:47pm

    They sell it at Trader Joe’s now Reply

  • February 7, 2019 9:24pm

    Maybe Red Boat might think about reviving production of Garum in Europe, since Garum is definitely a cousin of Vietnamese fish sauce: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garum
    One way or another, it’s the best! Reply

  • Jeanne
    February 7, 2019 9:31pm

    Amazon. Fr sells Red Boat fish sauce for (hold your breath) 110 euros.
    REALLY!!! Reply

  • Ivy Valory
    February 7, 2019 9:41pm

    I found the sauce at S. Airport Blvd. Costco in San Francisco! Whoop! And a steak rubbed with that salt … my mouth is exploding just thinking about it. Reply

  • BelleD
    February 7, 2019 10:13pm

    So glad you visited Phu Quoc. My family is from that lovely island and we are so proud of our fish sauce. Long before Red Boat, Phu Quoc was famous for the fish sauce that it produced. Famous enough to have Phu Quoc slapped on the label of a lot of brands that were not even produced in Phu Quoc. I still have cousins who are a small batch producers of fish sauce. The island itself is worth the extra travel. My older sisters likened it to Hawaii, but with better food ;) Reply

    • BelleD
      February 7, 2019 10:32pm

      And yes, the black peppercorn from Phu Quoc is exceptional. So intensely fragrant with a lot of heat for even small amounts. My family always brings back bags of the black peppercorn. That and the ready to eat dried squid. Ah, the memories… Reply

  • Terry
    February 7, 2019 10:58pm

    Great article. I tried to order the fish salt from Amazon, and it is out of stock at the moment. I am sure your article helped! Was able to find it on the Red Boat website. Can’t wait to try it. Love their fish sauce. Although, I broke a bottle in my pantry and it was fish scented for over a week. Reply

  • Irene
    February 8, 2019 12:23am

    Please fix Andrea’s name, it’s not Andrew. She’s also written about Red Boat in detail. Reply

  • Donna
    February 8, 2019 1:43am

    Love the Red Boat Sauce, and your writing about it. Merci! Reply

  • February 8, 2019 2:05am

    I have no problem finding Red Boat sauce, even in Maine.
    What puzzles me: How long is it fermented?
    I’d love to try making some Ancient Roman garum, which I suspect is very similar. Reply

    • Ivy Valory
      February 8, 2019 6:01pm

      My son made it. He said there is a recipe in Rene Redzepi’s book about his restaurant, Noma. Reply

    • Pru
      February 8, 2019 11:46pm

      I have never purchased fish sauce in my life but all of a sudden I feel the need to run to Whole Foods and buy sauce, salt, and whatever else Red Boat makes.

      Leaving the house now. Reply

  • berkeleybarb
    February 8, 2019 6:04am

    I heard about Red Boat fish sauce from the dailykos.com “What’s For Dinner” group, and quickly found it around the corner from my house at Berkeley Bowl, a most excellent grocery. I doubt I’ll ever buy any other fish sauce, having tried this one. I don’t shop Whole Foods b/c of where the CEO’s money (ultimately, my money, if I shopped there) goes. Reply

  • February 8, 2019 6:14am

    Marché oriental (Vietnamese superette) near me carries it, though I hesitate to use my bottle for everything as it is pricy. It is delicious. Reply

  • February 8, 2019 7:48am
    David Lebovitz

    Nancy: It’s fermented at least one year.

    Irena: Oops! That’s what happens when I write a post after a 13 1/2 hour flight – fixed : )

    BelleD: Yes, Phu Quoc fish sauce seems to be an industry. Cuong told me that when older people taste their fish sauce, it reminds them on the way it was traditionally made, with the same ingredients. I’m glad to hear people on the island are still making fish sauce at home (!)

    Jeanne: Yes, some third-party sellers jack up the price on Amazon, but I tried to link directly to the page where it’s not sold by a third-party. If you live in France, at the link in the post for La Maison du Vietnam, you’ll find they sell it for about €10. Reply

  • Lili
    February 8, 2019 8:29am

    Central Market in Texas sells it. Reply

  • VivC
    February 8, 2019 12:01pm

    What a great post! Will you be sharing any other details of your Vietnam itinerary and good finds in future posts? Reply

  • karl squitier
    February 8, 2019 3:01pm

    It is indeed very similar to the ancient roman garum….at least the refined version (liquamen, perhaps?) of it……the making of it (as well as the ingredients) is very much like the recipe for it given in the ‘geoponica’. Red Boat is truly a beautiful product. I use it all the time. Reply

  • February 9, 2019 7:09pm

    Extra bonus: Red Boat fish sauce is gluten-free! Which is not always true of other fish sauces. I switched from Three Crab to Red Boat to accommodate gluten-free mom-in-law, and am very happy with the taste. Reply

  • rob
    February 9, 2019 8:35pm

    Good post about a great product and all I can focus on is that pen in the sixth picture down. I love the look of it. What pen is that? Reply

    • February 10, 2019 2:29pm
      David Lebovitz

      I don’t know where I discovered it, but it’s a Papermate Ink Joy pen. I love them because they write smoothly, have fine tips (that stay fine), and they’re reasonably priced. I buy them by the dozen now. Reply

  • Susan
    February 9, 2019 10:49pm

    David, Market Hall Foods in CA also sells Red Boat. It’s on their website. I have been curious about this product, now might be the time to buy it.Thanks for the article. Reply

  • Kelly in Haiku
    February 10, 2019 12:00am

    I love Red Boat! I use it in most things savory. It adds a great depth of flavor in Bloody Marys, Guacamole, beans, you name it. I even add some to my ragu. Reply

  • Janice Linhares
    February 10, 2019 9:23am

    Dear David, love the post. This badly written recipe from Saveur gave me a laugh:
    Sardines with Gremolata
    SERVES 5-7
    Ingredients
    1⁄3 cup olive oil
    1⁄4 cup minced parsley
    1⁄4 cup minced thyme
    20 cloves garlic, minced
    Zest of 2 lemons, plus wedges for serving
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    16 fresh sardines, cleaned, rinsed, and dried. Reply

  • GREG
    February 10, 2019 3:54pm

    Just wandering how it’s different from COLATURA

    Greg NY Reply

    • sara jenkins
      February 12, 2019 3:50am

      that is the question! side by side they taste stunningly different and yet the flavor is so similar. Reply

  • Peter
    February 10, 2019 7:04pm

    David, after I discovered Red Boat, I pitched the vile others. It is superb and we use it on lots of dishes. Good replacement for Worcestershire sauce.
    But where do I get one of those handsome t-shirts? Reply

    • February 10, 2019 8:02pm
      David Lebovitz

      Actually, that’s a good question. I wanted one for myself, but didn’t want to ask…next time! Reply

  • Chris Moore
    February 11, 2019 10:53pm

    How nice to read about heat, fresh fruit, and open air dining. I’m in Seattle which-not typically-has just gotten about 10 inches of snow! Reply

  • Charlene V.
    February 12, 2019 6:31am

    Red Boat fish sauce is available at Uwajimaya, the wonderful Asian markets in Seattle and Portland (Oregon). A thought about packing it for travel: what about using a “WineSkin,” the sealable bubble wrap bottle bag that works great for packing wine in a suitcase? The large bottle of Red Boat would fit nicely into one. They’re available on Amazon (and many wineries) and it might be a good idea to pack a few for bringing any liquid back—olive oil, honey, maple syrup, etc. Reply

  • Elaine
    February 12, 2019 5:34pm

    Lucky you, David! Wish I were there with you to sample the different ages. Out of curiosity, were the sliced mangoes yellow or green? I’d have to imagine and hope green considering I grew up eating green mangoes with Filipino bagoong (fermented fish/shrimp), though it also works with sweet yellow mango as well. Green is just my personal preference. Hope you had your fill of irresistible fruits! Reply

    • February 13, 2019 9:55am
      David Lebovitz

      Hi Elaine,

      They were the sweet ripe mangoes; a few appear in the corner at the bottom of the picture at the top of the post. While green mangoes are delicious, the sweetness of the yellow ones counteract the saltiness of the sauce well, and is a good palate cleanser for tasting.

      Plus it’s another chance to eat those amazing mangoes, too ; ) Reply

  • Jane B in Denver
    February 17, 2019 8:59pm

    Wow, what a difference between the Red Boat fish sauce versus what I had been using. The Red Boat is fantastic. Thank you for the story about how the products are made. I bought a bottle from Whole Foods and wound up throwing away the sauce I had. Reply

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