Smuggled Phu Quoc fish sauce

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I walked away from the Culinary Institute of America’s 2009 World of Flavors conference last Saturday with many great things – cooking tips, dining trends, and a bottle of rare fish sauce from Phu Quoc island in Vietnam. Chef/restaurateur/TV show host Bobby Chinn smuggled the fish sauce into the country, carrying it with him as he filmed his travel series in several locations, including Turkey and Morocco. The last time I saw Bobby was in 2007 in New York where we were both on an Asia Society panel about the evolution of Vietnamese food traditions. He’d brought a bottle of Phu Quoc fish sauce for me then but we missed coordinating the handoff. I’ve regretted ever since.

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It is Phu Quoc fish sauce

Despite what you may think of Bobby, he’s a very kind person (okay, a little snarky too but in a good way). He was one of the first people I saw last Thursday at the conference and he greeted me with a big hug and peck on the cheek. We shared a bit of backstage nervousness before we had to do our public performance (he had much more responsibility than I), and I made sure to catch Bobby at his various sessions.

Phu Quoc fish sauce via Ocean tourism 

On Friday afternoon, he surprised me and the crowd at a live fire celebration of pork. He prepared grilled bun cha pork patties with round rice noodles and herbs. For his nuoc cham dipping sauce – he whipped out a La Vie plastic water bottle full of fish sauce. “This is the best fish sauce in the world,” he said. “It’s from Phu Quoc, Vietnam and the Vietnamese have got to get smart about exporting their good fish sauce. You can’t get this here. Andrea, the leftover is yours to take since you didn’t get the bottle I brought to New York!”

My mother didn’t raise no fool and I made sure to take the bottle with me when the session was over. If you’re unfamiliar with Phu Quoc, it’s an island off the south western coast of Vietnam renowned for making the best fish sauce around. It has to do with the little white anchovies (ca com) that they harvest. I’ve been to Phu Quoc and tasted nuoc mam right out of the wooden casks. It’s delicious, slightly oily and full of natural savory-sweet depth.

Informal Tastings

I tasted Bobby’s Phu Quoc fish sauce and had photographer Dave Hagerman, restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold pf the LA Weekly and editor Scott Hocker of San Francisco TastingTable.com do a sniff and/or taste test. We all agreed that it was deeply flavored stuff, more intense than the fish sauce we get in the States. It smelled gooood.

Blogging maven Pim and chef David Kinch invited us for dinner on Tuesday night, and I took Bobby’s Phu Quoc and the new Megachef Thai fish sauce for us to do a taste test. Playful and puckish Pim mixed it up with her favorite, Tiparos, and an off-brand calling itself Phu Quoc but it was really from Thailand. Manresa restaurant’s sommelier, Jeff, was there too and the five of us tasted the four fish sauces. The first thing we noticed was the color – they had different shades varying between amber and dark tea. Megachef and Bobby’s were darker, probably due to longer aging. Megachef is aged for 2 years, per the manufacturer. I have no idea what the aging was on Bobby’s fish sauce but it didn’t have the off quality of over-oxidized fish sauce that’s gone dark and bad.

Bobby Chinn via The Great Gastro

We all agreed that the off brand was metallic and yucky. Tiparos was nicely balanced. Megachef was on the sweet side (they put brown sugar into the nam pla, I was told). And Bobby’s 100% Phu Quoc had earthy depth and slight funk.  David and I liked Megachef and Bobby Chinn but Tiparos came in close. Pim grew up with Tiparos as her Thai standard and liked that one best. Jeff and Rory savored the champagne more.

This afternoon, I tasted Bobby and Megachef against Viet Huong’s 3 Crabs and 5 Crabs. (See the photos right above.) The 5 Crabs had a sharp saltiness. The 3 Crabs was nicely balanced and delicate. The Megachef had elegant depth. Bobby Chinn’s Phu Quoc fish sauce was punchy and left a slight fermenty taste on my palate. I’d never tasted that in nuoc mam before and it reminded me that fish sauce is a preserved product. I imagine that what Bobby gifted me was as close to the traditional preparations of fish sauce as I could get without hopping on a plane to Vietnam. 

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