We've heard that Phú Quốc island produces the highest quality fish sauce in the world, so we've decided to pay a visit to the nearby Hung Thinh fermentation plant. Our maps of the surrounding area are very poor, and we're not sure exactly where it is, but I have a hunch.
Genuine fish sauce is the water, or juice, in the flesh of fish that is extracted in the process of prolonged salting and fermentation. It is made from small fish that would otherwise have little value for consumption. This can either be freshwater or saltwater fish, though today, most fish sauce is made from the latter as pollution and dams have drastically reduced the once plentiful supply of freshwater fish in the heartlands of Southeast Asia.Thai Food & Travel: How Fish Sauce is Made
I'm pretty sure we passed one of the factories already, as I remember cycling by an awful smell on our way across the island a couple days ago. My plan? Follow our noses! Sure enough, we know we're on the right track about a kilometer before we even get there, thanks to the rank stench which permeates the part of town near the plant.
Soon, we've arrived at the riverside structure, parked our bikes, and peeked in the entrance. When our noses cross the doorway, a wave of powerful putrefaction even worse than the one outside smacks our faces, rendering us lightheaded.
Nobody speaks a word of English at the plant, and there is clearly no formal tour. But, despite our grimaces, and despite their dour appearance in the photo below, the workers seem pleased that we are here and happily lead us around, pointing to various parts of the operation.
While we feel queasy and faint because of the reeking smells assaulting our noses, the guys seem completely oblivious to them. The idea of inhaling the caustic scent day in and day out as a matter of course is mind-boggling to me. It is fouler than the foulest smell I have ever smelt, and easily worse than the worst bathroom I've ever had the misfortune of using.
The odor is so powerful that I can taste it with each breath, burning in the back of my nose. Inhaling through my mouth only makes the sensation worse; there is no escaping the overpowering assault. Previously, the Roquefort cheese factory held the crown, but no longer, this fish sauce plant is the most extreme experience my nose has ever undergone!
For fish sauce to develop a pleasant, fragrant aroma and taste, the fish must be very fresh. As soon as fishing boats return with their catch, the fish are rinsed and drained, then mixed with sea salt – two to three parts fish to one part salt by weight. They are then filled into large earthenware jars, lined on the bottom with a layer of salt, and topped with a layer of salt. A woven bamboo mat is placed over the fish and weighted down with heavy rocks to keep the fish from floating when water inside them are extracted out by the salt and fermentation process.Thai Food & Travel: How Fish Sauce is Made
The jars are covered and left in a sunny location for nine months to a year. From time to time, they are uncovered to air out and to let the fish be exposed to direct, hot sunshine, which helps "digest" the fish and turn them into fluid. The periodic "sunning" produces a fish sauce of superior quality, giving it a fragrant aroma and a clear, reddish brown color.
After enough months have passed, the liquid is removed from the jars, preferably through a spigot on the bottom of the jars, so that it passes through the layers of fish remains; or by siphoning. Any sediments are strained out with a clean cloth.Thai Food & Travel: How Fish Sauce is Made
The filtered fish sauce is filled into other clean jars and allowed to air out in the sun for a couple of weeks to dissipate the strong fish odors. It is then ready for bottling. The finished product is 100-percent, top-grade, genuine fish sauce. Thai Food & Travel: How Fish Sauce is Made
Hoooo wee. After a slightly nauseating but nevertheless interesting walk around the factory, we thank the guys and head out into the fresh air and daylight. Now back to our bungalow for a swim in the ocean, and maybe some fish-sauce-infused dinner a bit later.