02 January 2014
Fish Sauce in Europe
Byline: Ngoc Tran
(From the Saigon Times Magazine)
The Supermarket No.2 owned by the Tang Brothers is located at the corner of the Choissy Boulevard and Nicolas Fortin Street in Paris' District 13, which is well known for restaurants selling pho, beef noodle soup, different kinds of rice cakes with shrimps or pork and other Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. The supermarket is stocked with western wines, Chinese beer, herbs, frozen spring rolls, noodles, vermicelli, instant noodles and a wide range of condiments like fish sauce, soy sauce and chili sauce with different brands.
The only Vietnamese fish sauce available at this supermarket owned by the Laos-born Chinese brothers is the Phu Quoc with 25 degree of protein content produced by Thanh Ha Enterprise. Other fish sauce with different brands like Cock, Co Ba, Squid and Sauce de poisson are all imported from one neighbor of Vietnam: Thailand.
Fish sauce is called nuoc mam in Vietnam, patis by the Philippines, prahoc by the Cambodians and nam la by Thai people. This condiment from salted fish brewed in tanks for years is produced not only in Vietnam but also in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. However, only Vietnam and Thailand are now exporting their fish sauce to European countries. To market their fish sauce easily, Thai producers rarely use the words nam la but nuoc mam instead. They also brand the sauce in Vietnamese such as Co Ba (Miss Ba), Ca Com (anchovy), Viet Huong (a proper name), Ba Con Ca (three fish), Ba Con Cua (three crabs) and Con Muc (squid). Sometimes no brand is used but the name of the importer.
Thai fish sauce is sold in many places in Paris, even at supermarkets and hypermarkets heavily frequented by locals such as the Carrefour, Cora, Champion, Franprix and MonoPrix. Meanwhile, Vietnamese fish sauce is only available at groceries and food stores run by Asians, mainly the Chinese, and their main customers are the Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodians and Laotians. The Phu Quoc fish sauce bears the name of only two producers, Hung Thanh and Thanh Ha, but the words are printed in small letters on the back side of the label while the words Phu Quoc and the name of importers like Paris Store and Asia Mekong are printed clearly in big letters on the front of the label. Thanh Ha and Hung Thanh are currently two unique Vietnamese fish sauce producers recognized to reach the European Union food hygiene standards. They export some half a million liters a year, mainly to the EU.
Vietnam stopped selling fish sauce to Europe after 1975, and Thailand took advantage of this opportunity to enter the market, according to a Vietnamese owner of a medium food store in Paris. "When Vietnamese fish sauce returned in the mid-1980s, it was too late. Thai fish sauce became familiar with Europeans and Vietnamese here!," he says.
Dang Thi Lan, a Vietnamese living near the flea market of Wazemmes in Lilles City (northern France), remarks, "Phu Quoc fish sauce tastes good as a seasoning but it cannot be used for cooking because of its heavy smell. The Vietnamese here like to cook with Thai fish sauce because it's not smelly." Vo Nam, a Vietnamese who has lived in Paris since 1973, says he only uses Thai fish sauce when he cooks Vietnamese food.
Thai fish sauce is also cheaper than Phu Quoc, so it is preferred by Vietnamese restaurants in Europe. One 50-centiliter bottle of Phu Quoc fish sauce of 25 degree of protein content produced by Thanh Ha retails for 1.49 euro by the Tang Brothers. The price for the 35 degree variety is 1.95 euro per bottle. Hung Thanh fish sauce imported by Distrasia sells for 1.80 euro per bottle (the 35 degree variety) and 1.60 euro per bottle (25 degree variety). Meanwhile, the Thai "Co Ba thuong hang" (Miss Superior Ba) is priced at only 1.20 euro per 72-centiliter bottle. However, there is no protein content written on Thai fish sauce bottles.
Lan, once a restaurant owner, says, Thai fish sauce can be kept for a long time, so it's convenient for restaurants as they do not have to throw the sauce away if they do not use it up. Doan Thi Anh, a salesclerk at Asia Supermarkt on Taunusstrabe Street near Frankfurt Central Railway Station, has the same remark.
But to Dang Thi Hong, who has been living in Paris for three years now, no thing can replace Vietnamese sauce. "I only use Phu Quoc fish sauce," she says. Perhaps it's one of the ways to relieve her nostalgia. Hong, who does not forget the tasty sauce of her home country, should be the target customer that Phu Quoc fish sauce producers must try to win, and through her, recapture other Vietnamese in western countries. In particular, in the future when the specific process to produce Phu Quoc fish sauce is built and officially recognized by the EU with the "controlled Phu Quoc fish sauce appellation" stamping, end-users like Hong will become important customers. In mid-2002 when Vietnam agreed to protect Cognac liquor on the local market, France promised to protect the Phu Quoc fish sauce appellation of origin on its home market and other EU members. Fish sauce producers in Phu Quoc are well aware of the benefit of the "controlled Phu Quoc fish sauce appellation" stamping, but they are unable to produce the specific production process for Phu Quoc fish sauce due to confusion in methods, Nguyen Tu Cuong, director of the Center for Fisheries Quality and Hygiene Control Center under the Ministry of Fisheries, says.
It seems that only Unilever has adequate finance and marketing expertise to make Phu Quoc fish sauce better known overseas and introduce it to Europe, especially into supermarkets, as they are currently doing with different Knorr branded soups. The company recently launched Knoor branded Phu Quoc fish sauce on the Vietnamese market. The fish sauce is bottled in Phu Quoc, an essential condition to ensure its appellation of origin. This may be only the first step of the giant multinational.
[TB] Fish sauce is called nuoc mam in Vietnam, patis by the Philippines, prahoc by the Cambodians and nam la by Thai people. This condiment from salted fish brewed in tanks for years is produced not only in Vietnam but also in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. However, only Vietnam and Thailand are now exporting their fish sauce to European countries.[TE]