Phú Quốc’s economy has always been based around its plentiful seafood and fishing villages, but the island is especially renowned for its fish sauce. Pungent and briny, the sauce is used in nearly every Vietnamese dish, from noodles to dipping sauce, to add umami flavour. Phú Quốc is also the home of Red Boat Fish Sauce, an artisanal version of the cultural mainstay that’s become a worldwide culinary sensation thanks to one man’s vision — even elevating Michelin cuisine around the globe.
Global Epicentre of Fish Sauce
What Champagne is to France or olive oil is to Italy, fish sauce is to Phú Quốc — it’s so tied to the region that it was given a Protected Designation of Origin title in 2012 by the European Union Commission. That status means only fish sauce produced and bottled on Phú Quốc can be distributed under the prestigious title, and it’s earned when a food product is made within a defined geographical region using techniques and ingredients local to the area. Fish sauce is the only product in Vietnam to be given PDO status, joining the ranks of iconic foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Serrano ham, and Champagne.
There are 85 fish sauce producers on the island, most of which are open to visitors. PhúQuốc’s fish sauce factories produce 12 million litres of sauce per year, made from black sardines that are plentiful near the island. The fish are salted and fermented in huge wooden vats for six months to a year before becoming the legendary sauce.
Red Boat and Fish Sauce: The Origin Stories
Fish sauce dates back to the Roman Empire. An Italian fish sauce called Garum rose in popularity, eventually making its way to Asia along the Silk Road. When the Roman Empire collapsed, salt — which is vital to producing fish sauce — became a highly taxed commodity, and the popularity of fish sauce across Europe waned. This spurred fish sauce production in Asia, where it remained the dominant condiment for another thousand years until the Chinese developed soy sauce. Soy sauce became popular in China and Japan, while fish sauce continued to be used in Vietnam, Thailand, and other regions in Southeast Asia.
When entrepreneur Cuong Pham visited Phú Quốc from the United States in 2005, he was disappointed to see many commercial fish sauce producers cutting corners and compromising quality. Among the issues: using MSG and other additives to cover up low-quality production, and using byproduct or bulk anchovies from places other than Phú Quốc to increase output.
Pham left his 25-year tech career in Silicon Valley and returned to Vietnam to invest half-a-million dollars in making fish sauce the way it used to be made when his uncle was in the industry years ago. That meant reviving small batch, traditional fish sauce and introducing it to the world as Red Boat Fish Sauce.
“I wanted people to taste the true essence of great Vietnamese cuisine,” he says. In the process, he’s also introduced the world to the place where fish sauce is done best — Phú Quốc.
Setting a New Standard for Fish Sauce
Simple at its core, Red Boat’s process returns to time-honoured Phú Quốc techniques: wild-caught black anchovies are salted with salt from Ba Ria and fermented, and the enzymes in the fish innards react with the salt to break down the proteins.
The quality of the fish sauce peaks during the first press. Some producers do a second, lower quality press, but Red Boat uses only first-press sauce, known as nước mắm nhi. The result is the highest ratio of protein to liquid of any fish sauce sold in the U.S., an industry measurement for quality.
The company now has two barrelhouses in Phú Quốc. The open-air warehouses contain 190 towering, red-orange local boi loi wood barrels filled with up to 14 tonnes of sardines. The fish are labelled by the day they are caught and ferment at 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Taste of Phú Quốc Around the World
Utilizing this process, it took Pham three years to produce a product he wanted to sell, but the patience and pursuit of perfection paid off, as he’s now brought Phú Quốc-quality fish sauce to a global audience. “I believe we helped put Phú Quốc on the radar of non-Vietnamese people,” Pham says.
They certainly have. Red Boat has catapulted from everyday Vietnamese kitchens (where locals nostalgic for its authentic flavour buy it by the case) into the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants like Le Bernardin in New York and State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, who add it to both Asian and non-Asian dishes. Whoever is using it, they agree the purity of the sauce adds complexity to a dish.
Pham has now made a kosher version of his fish sauce, a Chef’s Cuvee 2015 that is double-barrel aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels used for maple syrup, and several other varieties, including custom sauces for celebrity chefs like Chris Shepherd of Underbelly.
Pham’s goal was to put Phú Quốc back on the map, introduce people to authentic nướcmắm nhi and give people a product that goes beyond Asian cooking. With his attention to detail and commitment to quality, Pham has done that and more; he’s revolutionized how the world sees — and tastes — fish sauce.
To experience Red Boat and the best of other Vietnamese delicacies in Phú Quốc, consider booking Club InterContinental at InterContinental Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort. Dedicated Club InterContinental staff can share their dining recommendations, and you’ll enjoy an exclusive experience, from complimentary afternoon tea to evening cocktails and canapes at the exclusive Club InterContinental lounge.