Vietnam's fish sauce producers swim against tide

After toxic waste spilled into the sea, many consumers are rejecting traditional products made with fermented fish
Vietnam's fish sauce producers swim against tide

Martha Hoang Thi Danh cleans clay jars for making fish sauce at her facility in Thua Thien Hue province. (Photo by Peter Ngoc)

ucanews.com reporter, Hue
Vietnam
April 2, 2019
In scorching sun, Martha Hoang Thi Danh, wearing rubber boots and gloves and wrapping her body with a sheet of clear plastic, cleans big clay jars scattered on the white sand around her house. She uses big jars to produce nuoc mam or fish sauce, a popular condiment in Vietnam.

Danh, whose family has made fish sauce for generations, used to produce 2,300 liters of fish sauce each year and employed 15 people.

Now she only produces 1,900 liters of fish sauce and hundreds of kilograms of other products made from fish and salt. Nine people work at her facility.

“We do not dare increase the volume of fish sauce as we did in the past because many people now have options to buy industrial fish sauce products at shops and supermarkets,” she said.

Danh said many people have turned their backs on traditional fish sauce since April 2016 when waters along four central provinces were affected by toxic waste illegally discharged into the sea by the Taiwanese-owned Formosa steel plant.

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She made a heavy loss and had to stop production of the pungent natural sauce until 2017.

Danh is one of 40 traditional fish sauce producers from Cu Lai parish in Thua Thien Hue province’s Phu Vang district.

“Now we are deeply concerned about the future of our traditional fish sauce because the government plans to issue a controversial draft standard,” she said.

The draft National Standard Code of Practice for the Production of Fish Sauce prepared by the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development has met with fierce criticism from traditional fish sauce producers for imposing unreasonable standards.

They claim the draft unfairly favors industrial production of fish sauce, effectively undermining and even destroying traditional practices. They accuse the ministry of intentionally equating traditional fish sauce, which is made with natural ingredients, with industrially produced ones that have chemical content.

A woman chooses industrially made fish sauce at a supermarket in Hue city. (Photo by Peter Ngoc)

 

Danh, who grew up with the scent of fish sauce, said she chooses good fish, mainly anchovies, sardines and scad, coats them in salt at a ratio of three kilograms of fish to one kilogram of salt, and ferments them in tanks made of terracotta for at least seven months to one or two years before extracting them for consumption. Each tank contains 150 kilograms of fish.

Experts say traditional fish sauce has no preservatives because salt and high amino acid content helps preserve the liquid naturally. But industrial fish sauce — a mixture of diluted fish sauce and some 20 additives including flavoring, coloring and sweeteners — cannot be stored for a long time without preservatives.

They warn that such chemicals may cause problems to human health and claim industrially made products cannot be called fish sauce at all.

Paul Le Van Sinh, 57, a traditional fish sauce maker from Quang Cong commune, said the draft standard will encourage consumers to use industrially made fish sauce products which are easily produced in a short time and sold at cheaper prices.

He said industrial versions are decorated beautifully, displayed at supermarkets, advertised heavily and widely sold at 65,000 dong (US$2.80) to 80,000 dong per liter. Traditional fish sauce is only sold at small markets and shops at 100,000 to 110,000 dong per liter.

Sinh has reduced his output from 2,500 liters to 1,500 this year due to a poor market. Many traditional operators like him are suffering losses.

Mai Anh Thi, a bank worker, said she knows industrial fish sauce is not as good as traditional versions but she cannot find the latter at supermarkets.

Dressmaker Nguyen Thi Hau said she never uses industrial fish sauce products for fear that they may cause cancer.

“I prefer traditional fish sauce, which is made of natural ingredients and good for our health. No one has suffered from traditional fish sauce,” the 53-year-old mother of three said.

Fish sauce is consumed daily by most of Vietnam’s population of 95 million as a dipping sauce and marinade.

According to information from the Ho Chi Minh City Food Association, on average Vietnam consumes 250 million liters of fish sauce each year. Traditional fish sauce only accounts for about 60 million liters, while industrial fish sauce accounts for nearly 190 million, equivalent to 70 percent of the domestic market.

Industrial fish sauce has existed in the market for 10 years.

Danh said she understands the long process and hardship involved in making the condiment that is indispensable to Vietnamese cuisine. “We will try our best to keep the tradition alive and not let it die,” she said. 

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