Thai and Vietnamese-inspired dishes such as rice-wrapper spring rolls are a nice change of pace for Shabbat. But though I pack the rolls with fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, and other traditional fillings, mine have lacked authenticity for years, simply because there was no kosher version of fish sauce with it’s salty-sweet fermented tang.
Called nuoc mam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand, it is nearly impossible to find a substitute for it. Kosher cooks have tried using pineapple juice, gussied-up shoyu, weird rice-vinegar and maple-syrup blends, and so on. I myself even tried making fish sauce many years ago. (Bad, bad idea. Never try to ferment fish at home unless you’re enjoy the lingering fragrance of eau-de-fish market in every fabric item you own.)
But now, finally, BTs (and others) can rejoice, L’Kavod Shabbos. The very first batch of kosher Red Boat Fish Sauce, more than a year in the making, is finally here—and it’s superb.
This fish sauce is different in style to other fish sauces available in the United States. The Vietnamese boutique brand’s kosher run is richer, brinier, and less sweet than other fish sauces, with a recognizable anchovy-tang. This is the beaujolais nouveau of fish sauces—immediate, accessible, lively. (Maybe a longer ferment might make this sauce more mellow, but I suspect it would just be flatter.)
In October, 2014, Rabbi Menachem Hartman of the OK went to Vietnam to supervise the first kosher production of Red Boat Fish Sauce. Like their other version, it’s made from ca com, freshly-caught black anchovies, and aged over year (or more) in enormous barrels made from traditional tropical woods. The barrels hold about 14,000 tons of anchovies which, after salting and pressing, yield fewer than 800 gallons of fish sauce.
The final product is a gorgeous, nearly rooibos-tea color. Since 2005, the enterprising owner, Cuong Pham, has been committed to making the purest, most authentic Vietnamese fish sauce available in the American market. The fish sauce I remember from long ago probably contained chemicals and sugar; I’ve been told that Red Boat is the real thing.
I decided to try it in a dish I haven’t had in forever, my own version of Vietnamese Caramel Fish. In Vietnam they take the caramel past my Western comfort zone, blackening it slightly to bring out it’s coffee-bitter flavor, while retaining its sweetness. Then they stew fish (usually the non-kosher catfish). in the sauce or else roast it while basting it. This time around I decided I’d try using piloncillo (aka panela), unrefined sugar with a mild burnt-molasses tang, hoping this would mitigate some of the burnt-caramel bitterness which I find chemical-tasting in the traditional version, while avoiding the sweetness of American-style caramel. It worked! Here’s how I did it:
Vietnamese Caramel Salmon (HJC)
1/4 cup piloncillo (roughly chop or grate to measure approximately; you could use more for a richer, thicker sauce)
Up to 1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon virgin coconut oil
3 large shallots, sliced fine
2 or 3 fillets of salmon or 2 salmon steaks
Caramel (use recipe, above)
Sucanat or brown sugar, to taste, optional
2 teaspoons fresh lime or lemon juice
1 tablespoon Red Boat Kosher Fish Sauce
3 Scallions, sliced
Chopped cilantro, mint, Vietnamese cilantro, Holy Basil (optional, and not strictly authentic, but very good)
Minced bird chilli (optional, not necessarily authentic, but good)
On a low heat, begin melting the piloncillo. If it starts to stick, add water, first a quarter cup, then more if needed, and stir until smooth caramel-like sauce forms.
In a deep frying pan or wok, saute the shallots in the oil until golden-brown (scoop out with slotted spoon and set aside if you like them crispy.) Add the fish, skin side down if using fillets, and cook until bottom is crispy.
Then turn fish over, add sauce, basting the fish until thoroughly coated. Add lemon juice and sugar, if using, water if sauce is too thick, and fish sauce, and cover, let stew for at least 30 minutes, basting every five minutes or so. Taste for seasoning and adjust with either sugar, fish sauce, or lemon juice if you prefer it tangier. Top with sliced scallions and herbs if using, and cook for a few more minutes, covered.
Top with reserved shallots if you set them aside. This can be served hot, warmed up the next day, or chilled for Shabbat. You can easily double or triple this recipe; the caramel will keep at room temperature or refrigerated for quite awhile.
You can learn more about the making of the world’s first-ever kosher fish sauce at RedBoatFishSauce.com.