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The savory taste of “mắm” - Vietnamese fermented aquatic products
Date: 20/01/2020

For inhabitants of all social classes in the southern region, the rich or the poor, intellectual or manual workers, dishes made from “mắm” are essential in everyday life.

For a very long time, our ancestors took advantage of rich animal resources in the river-canal systems of this fertile land like shrimps, fish, small shrimps, small crabs… .. to produce “mắm”.

In addition, “mắm” is a very precious reserved food for people in the countryside when they lack supplies or when they do not have enough time for cooking because of their busy farm work.

There are many types of “mắm” in the Southern region, based on fish like snakehead fish, catfish, gourami fish, henicorhynchus fish… In Tien Giang, there are also others from cheaper to more expensive: “mắm” made from shrimps, baby shrimps, small crabs, yellow shrimps… These are good ingredients for the preparation of many appetizing rural dishes.

Previously, “mắm” or “nước mắm” produced by families at home, called "mắm đồng" (made from freshwater fish) to distinguish it from “mắm biển” (made from anchovies). Go Cong  is known for its two specialties, “mắm” made from shrimps and from small crabs. This fermented shrimp sauce was one of the offerings to the king during the Nguyen dynasty.

I remember my childhood with the simplest dish of my family. It is raw “mắm” which is made from snakehead fish, gourami fish, henicorhynchus fish. These types of “mắm” are often very salty. To eat them raw, we must add spices like garlic, chilli, sugar, monosodium glutamate. To stimulate appetite better, vegetables are essential: aromatic herbs, star fruit, green bananas, cucumber.

Another variation of raw “mắm” is “mắm ruột”, which has been around for a very long time. “Mắm ruột” is well-chopped raw “mắm”, seasoned with garlic, peppers, sugar, monosodium glutamate, mixed with finely chopped papayas. “Mắm ruột” can be accompanied by aromatic herbs and boiled pork. Today, we rarely see this dish at the meals of city dwellers, on the other hand, in the countryside, it is still very popular in everyday life and even at parties.

“Mắm chưng” is a type of steamed “mắm”. It is a mixture of well-chopped “mắm”, ground pork, well-beaten eggs, shallots, chives, spices, accompanied by eggplant, cucumbers, aromatic herbs, bananas green…

Strange but “mắm” or dishes made from “mắm” has become naturally ubiquitous in the daily meal of westerners. With this savory dish, everyday meal is more and more appetizing and mouth-watering.

Mắm biển, whose taste is unforgettable, remains a specialty known to all the inhabitants of Go Cong. This mixture of flavors from the sea, the sour and spicy taste of lemongrass and peppers, accompanied by aromatic herbs or boiled vegetables is really a treat.

“Mắm tép” (with small shrimps) is an excellent rural dish, often served to guests from far away. The recipe turns out to be very simple with “mắm”, finely chopped papayas, garlic and ginger. The good smell of the m se emitting throughout the house stimulates the sense of taste. Accompanied by vermicelli, pork, aromatic herbs and cucumbers, “mắm tép” becomes a dish from the Tien Giang region not to be missed.

“Mắm tôm chà”, made from shrimp, is classified as Tien Giang's specialty. According to the elders of Go Cong, this region was so abundant with saltwater shrimps that it produced dried shrimps, shrimp paste and “mắm” of sweet and sour shrimp, particularly “mắm tôm chà” which requires a careful production process to reserve for a long time.

“Mắm tôm chà” is over 200 years old and passed down from generation to generation. Accompanied by boiled pork and rice vermicelli, this dish is typical with a delicious taste of shrimp, “mắm”, both sweet and spicy.

It can also be used to prepare a sauce to accompany other dishes like spring rolls. It is a special gift, a royal offering not to be missed for visitors.

Another creation of “mắm”: caramel “mắm”. It is a very appetizing dish for farmers during rainy days or after a day of field work, especially when being hungry. The dish is prepared from “mắm” based on henicorhynchus fish or gourami fish.

We put it in boiling water and remove bones. Previously, catfish or snakehead fish, bitter cucumber, eggplant were simply added to this “mắm” broth. Today, when the standard of living is improved, we can add pork, shrimp, a few pieces of pineapple, bitter cucumber, eggplant, okra ... so that the pot of caramel “mắm” is tastier.

Vegetables and aromatic herbs are essential for this dish. In the countryside, farmers easily find them in their garden: water lily, kèo nèo (limnocharis flava), banana flowers, lá cách leaves (premna serratifolia)… In town, there are more choices: aromatic herbs, soybean sprouts, winged bean (psophocarpus tetragonolobus), spring onions, điên điển flowers (Sesbania sesban).

Besides caramel “mắm”, it is also commonly served in restaurants as “mắm” hotpot. The ingredients are the same, but the broth is less salty. The dish is accompanied by rice noodles or vermicelli. Vegetables and aromatic herbs are also different: chopped water bindweed, water lily stems, several kinds of salads, neptunia oleracea, kèo nèo (limnocharis flava), so đũa (sesbania grandiflora)… especially the indispensable điên điển flowers (Sesbania sesban) during the flood season.

“Mắm” hotpot is still the top choice to serve visitors from far away. This gastronomic symbol of the region is unique not only thanks to its intriguing taste, but also to its fragrance and the colors of the leaves and aromatic herbs that accompany it. A taste of wanting to come back for expatriates and visitors.

For several generations of the inhabitants of the western region in general and of Tien Giang province in particular, this rural dish is so dear and familiar to them that they cannot miss it even for a few days.

It is a simple yet popular dish for which love is ingrained in the hearts of westerners.


Source: Ap Bac Journal - Translated by Hoang Dat


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Breakfast on the river  (20/02/2020)
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