February 6, 2023
HANOI – Born into a four-generation fishing family in Nam Ô Village in the central city of Đà Nẵng, Bùi Văn Phong, now 70, began making fish sauce as a teenager and has kept developing the family brand for more than half a century.
The fish sauce quality earned the premium certificate from the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang in 1958, and the trade has been transferred to Phong’s son, Bùi Văn Phú.
“It’s also the village’s first ever fish sauce product that was given the quality certificate under the name “Hồng Hương”. My mother sent a sample of the artisanal fish sauce to the institute, and the product became a trusted brand,” Phong says.
“My family has maintained the 1958 seal of quality, even though it was given a new name “Hương Làng Cổ” (Ancient Village Savour) in 2016.”
The artisan explained that his family and other fish sauce makers in the village have consistently applied the ideal ratio of unrefined salt and anchovy to produce fish sauce since the 19th century.
“Only terracotta jars were used to ferment fish in the salt from Sa Huỳnh field – a well-known salt producing area in Quảng Ngãi – in a high temperature under sunlight for 14 to 18 months,” Phong says.
“The colour of well-fermented sauce turned from honey to red-brown during 12 months. The two-year stored sauce is considered premium, with 30 per cent protein.”
Phú, an IT teacher, gave a boost to the family trade when he took over management of the Hồng Hương fish sauce company from his father Phong.
“I grew up with fish sauce. I regret seeing the trade fade, so I have to push the craft,” Phú says.
“The fish catch from January to March and August to September are two high seasons for fish sauce makers. Eight anchovy species can be used to make fish sauce, but only black anchovy creates the best product. Non-chemical, zero-plastic, and environment-friendly materials, including bamboo, ceramic, cloth and glass, are used in fish sauce production.”
Terracotta jars are ordered from potteries in the southern province of Sóc Trăng to store mass-fermented fish.
“My family alone produces 20,000 litres per year for sale at 40 shops in Đà Nẵng. We are proud that our fish sauce is available at the Go supermarket under the Central Retail Corporation in downtown Đà Nẵng,” he says.
Nguyễn Thái Nhật Huy, who is in charge of marketing and sales of the fish sauce, says it’s the first made-in-Đà Nẵng fish sauce to be put on sale at a supermarket.
He says the artisanal fish sauce has even challenged industrial fish sauce brands in supermarkets.
“Price, strict production process, traditional know-how, and packaging are barriers the traditional fish sauce industry has to overcome. A 500ml glass bottle is priced around VNĐ60,000 (US$2.4) – two times more than the same amount of industrial fish sauce,” Huy says.
The revival of artisanal fish sauce has recently been seen in the market since gastronomes prefer healthy foods and are ready to disregard the price.
“The local fish sauce has earned its reputation in terms of safe food, being non-chemical and without additives. The fish sauce trade of Nam Ô Village was also recognised as a National Intangible Heritage by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism,” he says.
Nguyễn Nữ Tố Nga, a manager of Go Supermarket, says the major retail corporation wishes to introduce the traditional product in diversifying commodities.
She says local artisanal products need quality qualifications, legal certificates, and quality guarantees to be displayed at supermarket pavilions.
Trần Ngọc Vinh, 71, chairman of the village’s Fish Sauce Trade Association, says more than 100 households practise the traditional technique in the town.
“Making fish sauce is a way of living for most villagers, but it needs supportive policies and marketing from state agencies to make the product successful.”
Vinh says the village annually produces 100,000 litres of fish sauce from 200 tonnes of anchovies, but Nam Ô fish sauce has seen tough competition against brands such as Phú Quốc, Phan Thiết, Nha Trang and industrial fish sauce.
Despite local authority support in improving fisheries and marketing, a lack of working space has kept the craft at a small scale.
“We need at least a 2,000sq.m workshop to store containers of fermented fish, salt and the finished product, that can handle waste treatment and residue,” Phú says.
“We cannot expand production due to limited household stores; moreover it would cause pollution in residential areas.” — VNS