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Sa Chau fish sauce - specialty condiment of Nam Dinh province

Sa Chau village of Giao Chau commune in Giao Thuy district, the northern province of Nam Dinh, has long been famous for the traditional production of fish sauce whose pungent smell can grasp any visitor’s attention before they reach the village’s gate.

Long-standing craft of fish sauce production

The production of fish sauce in Giao Chau commune dates back centuries and originates in Sa Chau village. As the condiment is completely made by hand, the production process is extremely meticulous.

Ingredients are mainly “nuc” and “cuom” fish or tiny prawn, all of which must be fresh, not frozen or decomposed. Locals divide one year into sunny and rainy seasons and they make fish sauce in the sunny season in the middle of the year while selling the product in the year’s beginning or ending months, when it rains a lot.

Not only fish but salt is also carefully selected. The salt used for making fish sauce is bought from late April through May and features dry and white flakes. In particular, salt must be kept in warehouse for more than one year to get rid of the acrid taste before use.

The production process here is also more sophisticated than that in other places. Every 10 kilogrammes of fish is marinated with about 1.2 - 1.3 kilogrammes of salt and kept for six months so that the fish completely breaks down. After that, the mixture is poured into a bamboo basket covered with coarsely homespun fabric to extract pure fish sauce.

The sauce is later contained in aluminum crocks and left in the sun until white salt appears in the surface. As the condiment must not be contaminated with water, people must cover it carefully on rainy days.

Producing fish sauce at first appears to be a leisured craft but is in fact a highly strenuous job. Only one batch of fish marinated improperly or polluted with rainwater could ruin their months of hard work.

Mai Thi Ty, an experienced maker in Sa Chau village, said the local fish sauce is laid out in the sun but not cooked so that it can soak up the “taste” of the nature. For example, if it is April, and it is not until the next March can the condiment be obtained and continue to be exposed to the sun.

She added making fish sauce is also an unstable craft as it depends on fish quality, fermenting techniques, and other skills. Each family has their own production secrets, and all throw themselves wholeheartedly into the craft or the prestige of the entire village will be eroded.

The Sa Chau fish sauce has by now become renowned far and wide and been distributed to various provinces and cities nationwide, from northern mountainous provinces such as Dien Bien and Son La to others in the south like Ho Chi Minh City and Tay Ninh province.

Concern over preservation of traditional craft

Each tonne of fish can generate 300 litres of fish sauce. There are many types of Sa Chau fish sauce. The top-quality one, laid in the sun for a long time, has stable prices while others with shorter “sunbathing” periods are cheaper.

Therefore, not many young people get involved in this job, which concerns many veteran makers.

Nguyen Van Hai, a local resident, said the Sa Chau fish sauce is completely made by hand with many different steps. The craft is also dependent on weather conditions, and a small mishandling can lead to an unqualified product. All of these factors have made the craft strenuous and discouraged the young from upholding it.

The craft is facing the risk of becoming obsolete. Most people come to know this specialty condiment via their acquaintances’ introduction. Many families have also had to do some other jobs while waiting for the fish to ferment.

Hai said the village is now in dire need of young workers, voicing her concern that though her family is known for their delicious condiment, they have yet to find out anyone to maintain the craft.

There are about 30 households making fish sauce in Sa Chau at present, including 10 with large-scale production. All have received food safety certificates granted by the sub-department for agro-forestry-fishery products of Nam Dinh province./.