A Visit to a Fish Sauce Factory
by Kasma Loha-unchit
By a coincidence, Kasma's brother knows a distributor (mostly to Malaysia and Singapore) for one of Kasma's favorite fish sauces: it is the Golden Boy brand (so-called because of the label) or simply "boy" (dehk) brand in Thai. We got to go out to the facility where it is made is Rayong, about 120 kilometers from Bangkok. It is a small, family- run business, kept intentionally small so that quality can be kept very high.
it was pretty impressive. The fish sauce is started from very fresh fish, of the small variety, which are placed in concrete holding tanks along with salt (I think it is about a 3:2 weight ratio). It takes 5 to 7 kilograms of fish to make a liter of fish sauce of this quality. With a few interventions (periodically it is opened to the sun) they essentially let it sit for 18 months. We got to see it at a number of steps along the way, as there were between 200 and 300 concrete sections. After a few days there is not very much liquid. By several weeks the amount of liquid has grown, although it looked as if it contained a fair amount of salt and scum. By 18 months the liquid is virtually clear: the owner put a glass in, swirled it around and it came out looking like fine whisky. No liquid had been added and yet the tank, save for a crusting of salt around one edge, was nearly completely liquid.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was how little odor there was in this facility. The 100% fish sauce that we tasted is much less salty than the fish sauce normally purchased in the United States. He explained that in order to compete, pricewise, they can't send the "Grade A" so they end up sending the "Grade A-minus." After the liquid is taken off and filtered, liquid is added to the remains of the fish and salt and over several days it is moved from tank to tank until a lower quality liquid suitable for dilution is available. They have to move it from tank to tank in order to keep the same rich color a the 100% fish sauce. They then bottle it to export as 70% "Grade A" fish sauce with 30% of the next quality. This is what is exported to the US and what we can find on the shelves here."
This applies only to this factory. We don't know exactly how the others operate. But even before we had visited and gotten the story, this was one of the fish sauces always preferred by Kasma's students. Probably because it is somewhat less salty than many other varieties.
The length of time that the fish/salt arrangement is left to sit has a great deal to do with the final quality. The family at this facility has been making fish sauce for 80 years. They originally left it for 24 months but the current owner was able to determine (by measuring the protein levels and observing the quality) that the extra 6 months was not necessary. Fish sauce that has been sitting for lesser periods of time will be darker and have a more "fishy" flavor.
Country people, especially in Northern Thailand actually prefer a stronger flavor. Traditionally they made (and many still make) their own fish sauce, often skimming off the liquid to use after as short a time as 2 weeks when the fish is still fermenting. They don't even bother to strain it – they enjoy the extra protein that the bits of fish give them.
We came home with 4 bottles of the "Grade A" fish sauce, wishing very much that we had a source for it here in the U.S. (We are hoping one of the online markets might be able to carry it.) Kasma will let her beginning students have a taste, but that's all. We are hoarding this liquid gold for our table "Thai salt" and for our "yum" salads.
In this year's (July 2000) weeklong intensive there was one participant who commented on what a big difference it would make in her cooking to use a brand such as Golden Boy. The brand she had used before was lower quantity and this was reflected in her finished dishes.
Golden Boy brand is more readily available in the East Coast, for there is a distributor in New York City. We are able to find it in many markets here on the West Coast so keep your eye out for it. It may not be the "Grade A" but the "Grade A-minus" is as good as we've found here in the United States. If you can't find it at your local market, Golden Boy is also available online from three online markets.
See Also: A Seafood Culture.
Here's an interesting blog entry (offsite) by Mary Dan Eades, M.D. titled Garum (Fish Sauce) The Ketchup of Antiquity.
Photo copyright © 2012 Jack Kingsley. All rights reserved.