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Vietnams' Pho' is a officially a hit, not a fad. Vietnamese flavors vary, each "house" has a special recipe.
The boiling hot kitchen is no place for an American.
Intro to some of my Vietnam
Most people around the globe do not live where the tidal changes affect life for over 100 miles inland. I guess that is a delta. Then if we add the rice farming aspect we get hundreds of square miles directly affected by the tide. Such a place is southern Vietnam. It is the cause of a diet and cuisine most outstandingly native and culturally unique. I like the food, but I really like the mystique because it is not translatable to western words, for we have no reference. That brings me to a diversion.
The current written language of Vietnam is only, less than a century old. They use western characters supplemented with many punctuation marks throughout, beginning and ending words. Prior to the last century an Asian Chinese type of lettering was used. Few now know it at all. I mention this because it is important that you know that the translations are not as neat as we would like them, it is one language that should not be translated but only interpreted – and the same holds true for the spices I reference.
Something that should be noted is that Vietnam is in the top five world producers of Coffee and pepper. Ratings fluctuate depending on size of crop there and elsewhere. I have walked these fields and find the pure methods of growing to be on par with any “organic” style in the west.
Don't let the name sauce fool you
The romance of the fish sauce
Now back to my “spices”. Fish sauce is paramount. There are many brands. I just look for a bottle that says Phu Quoc. A side note is that many places/brands put that on their label that have nothing to do with Phu Quoc. If you read carefully you can find one that is actually from there, however to my experience the producer will stick to a recipe that is close to the Phu Quoc recipe. Pho Quoc is an island off of Vietnam that is worth every penny to visit. Call me crazy but in a primitive way the canals reminded of Venice. One night my bride and I lay happily on the sand of our semi-private beach, we looked to sea and the boats harvesting the fish for fish sauce must have number 300. Two miles away maybe, half moon, and a sea as still and reflective as a dream of tranquility. Each had more a lantern than a light hanging beyond the bow to attract the fish. The lanterns looked like firefly fairies dancing across the water in some harmony saved for the heavens. Yes Phu Quoc is the best fish sauce.
Fish sauce is more a culture than a sauce
Soy, Maggi and the pastes
Now most are used to Soy Sauce. So it is that I am, but there is a superior sauce. It is called Maggi. What I can tell you is this: Taste it. There is a certain blending that just works better than even the best soy sauce. WARNING – I say Maggi is best for taste but it has gluten in it and chemicals I cannot pronounce, it is a product of China but made through Nestle of Switzerland and of course imported to the USA via Glendale, so please season responsibly.
I do not remember growing up and seeing many pastes. I know my mom had a herring one that she would eat on crackers while cooking with sherry so to speak. But that is it. When I lived and worked in Paris there were many pastes of all varieties. But out here in SW USA pastes are right up there with pate’s and toothpaste. These two are essential and can turn a desert scene into a boardwalk right on the ocean. They are a little trippy. Careful, do not let the scent go direct to the eater’s nostrils prior to incorporating it into the dish. My wife always cringes when I leave my office and venture into her kitchen prematurely. And always to my delight I smell a smell that reminds me of Fisherman’s Wharf SF, Dover and Da Nang bay all at the same time. But I suppose to another it may be overwhelming. What they label here as a sauce is anything but. Both of these are pastes and should be treated as such. These will turn a lame grocery store fish into real fish. Crab and Shrimp pastes just put the ambience in the air. Use sparingly. (the other day I just put some in a pan, I mean very little, heated it and my whole house was ready and salivating for my frozen Halibut)
I like them both
Add to taste
Now these last two sauces are not the same but they really go with each other. These are more table condiments that cooking ingredients. The Huison sauce is dang near sweet, and I would say with a hint of roasted nut. This other sauce here is not to be trifled with. It will not hurt you for the long run. It takes a lot to burn your mouth, but it does something to your body. While consuming it you will sweat, no I mean really sweat. Then it does something in the area of a stimulant to your digestive tract. Hey now, pay attention here, what I am referring to is all good and not distressful. It is just a very interesting drug, spice. Herb or whatever. While travelling in Asia I have highly recommended it to companions for both problems tourists have and it has never disappointed.
Now I have to admit I did not give you recipe advice, but let me give some social advice. I love adventures in eating. I do care to try everything and throw caution to the wind. If you are reading this and tempted to try these fun spices, then, I love you. What goes into a man’s mouth does not defile him. What comes out is the measure of a person. Speak in harmony with your host or your guest. Feel the love of food served you. Give the food you serve your love.