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Pour Little Fishes

The Fermented Sauce Known as Nam Pla Is the Secret to Southeast Asian Cuisine

July 07, 2002|PHIL BARBER

Whatever Golden Boy is drinking, I want some. The guy's sitting on top of the world, literally, his chubby behind touching down somewhere in the Arctic Circle. A healthy blush kisses his cheeks, while a vibrant corona seems ready to engulf him from behind. His right hand flashes thumbs-up. His left cradles a giant bottle of his own product: Golden Boy Brand fish sauce.

His is not the only fishsauce label you can see in the Southland these days. From Westminster to Pomona to Mar Vista, it's pretty easy to find brands such as Tra Chang, Squid and Tiparos, most of them priced at less than $2 for a 725-milliliter bottle.

A lot of us are only now becoming familiar with this ancient ingredient. Southeast Asians consume tens of millions of gallons of fermented fish sauce every year. In Thailand it is known as nam pla, meaning "fish water." It is nuoc mam in Vietnam, tuk trey in Cambodia, budu in rural Malaysia, gnapi in Burma, shottsuru in Japan. In Eagle Rock they call it patis. At least they do on one hilltop, where Gloria Valde, a dentist by profession, has been known to make her own fish sauce for a range of Filipino dishes. Gloria's daughter Jane, also a dentist, is my wife's friend from college. My wife admits to being slightly horrified at the sight of anchovies being "digested" by their own enzymes in a jar next to the Valde driveway. (She was equally spooked by the lifelike plaster dental molds strewn about the landscaping). And the Valdes' dogs aren't exactly thrilled about the patis production, either. Jane says they bark vehemently whenever someone removes the lid.

For human or hound, the making of fish sauce is an earthy experience. The age-old method calls for placing fresh fish in a vat or jar, covering them in brine and setting them in the sun. Any fish can be used, but anchovies are especially popular because they are too small to offer much value as an entree. The vats are periodically opened to allow direct sunlight to hit the fish, but the process is mostly passive. Over time, the fish solids turn to liquid. After up to 18 months, the deep-amber liquid is poured off, filtered, placed in the sun for a couple of additional weeks, bottled and sold.

Good fish sauce should look a lot like good whiskey, and it's equally staggering at first whiff. But high-grade fish sauce isn't nearly as "fishy" as you might expect. Instead of pure saltiness, you get a robust and complex burst of the sea.

The Thai use nam pla in practically every meal they cook: noodle dishes, salads, sauces, soups and more. (Some call it the soy sauce of Thailand.) And nam pla prik--a mixture of fish sauce and diced chiles--might be Thailand's most commonplace condiment.

Think of it this way: If you like Thai food, you have already been converted to nam pla. Why not experiment with it at home? At the same time, we can't really recommend the homemade variety. The barking dogs bug the neighbors.

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Sotanghon (Glass Noodle) Soup

Serves 6

*--* 1/4 cup vegetable oil 6 cloves garlic, chopped fine 1 onion, diced 1 chicken, quartered 10 cups water 1 carrot, chopped 2 leeks, trimmed and chopped 2 stalks celery, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons fish sauce 10 pieces dried mushrooms 1 8-ounce package glass noodles, soaked in water for 10 minutes

*--*

In large stewing pot, saute garlic and onion in oil. Add chicken and cook 5 minutes, turning occasionally. Pour in water and add vegetables. Bring to boil. Cook chicken until tender, then remove and pull meat from the bone; set meat aside. Strain broth. Press vegetables through sieve and collect runoff in pot (discard vegetables). Add salt and fish sauce to pot and stir. Add chicken, mushrooms and glass noodles. Boil for 10 minutes and serve hot.

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Phil Barber last wrote for the magazine about sake.

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