How Vegemite led me to Nam O

How Vegemite led me to Nam O

October 07, 2020

There are not many dishes in Vietnam that doesn't contain fish sauce. In fact, when I was doing a cooking class recently, the head chef told us his secret ingredient for his pasta sauce was a few drops of fish sauce which adds an extra depth to the dish.

I had always thought of fish sauce as quite pungent and was surprised when a local Vietnamese pointed out that fish sauce has a similar smell to good old Aussie Vegemite.

When offered the chance to visit Nam O Village I was excited to see how this sauce that smelt like my favourite spread was made. Many villages in Vietnam still to this day are famous for a century old craft, for the residents of Nam O it is for their fish sauce.

As the bus made its way in, my nose told me we had reached our destination. I was warmly greeted by Mr Hai who had grown up and currently still resides in Nam O; where the production of fish sauce in the village dates back to the 19th century.

Nam O Fish Sauce started up over 400 years ago and now uses between 30 and 40 tonnes of high quality long-jawed anchovies each year to keep up with demand. The fish are freshly caught and cleaned in salt water, before being mixed with the salt. The secret also lies in the salt and its preparation, each salt vat must be laid out on a cement floor to draw out the moisture before being stored for many years until it is ready to be used.

The fish is mixed with the salt and layered into the jars with a grid of bamboo between each layer. Each vat is then carefully sealed and kept in a cool, dry and dark place. The fish is stirred after six or seven months and can take up to 2 years to ferment.

There are now many large companies which produce fish sauce using modern techniques. However ask any local, and they will tell you that the quality doesn't compare and the traditional process provides a product which is just superior to any other.  

Unfortunately, many people in the village have since left this craft behind for a more stable income. Even Mr Hai's oldest son has moved to the city in search of an office job. Afraid that this century old technique will be lost to modern technology, he is happy to share with us that his younger son, Teo is keen to carry on the family business.

For Mr Hai, his hope is to keep his family tradition alive and to one day see Nam O Fish Sauce being sold overseas. I explained to him that I think they are already selling it overseas – just disguised in a Vegemite jar!