real Phu Quoc fish sauce

In the travel memoir Catfish and Mandala, Vietnamese-born, American-bred writer Andrew X. Pham cracks wise to defuse a group of drunken bullies who suspect he’s half-Japanese. He tells them:

“Nope. Whole undiluted fish sauce, I am.” I sniff my armpit, wrinkle my nose, and nod. “Aiee! Pure concentrate.”

Because asserting one’s identify by smelling like the by-product of fish that have fermented and liquefied over months in punishing tropical heat is a lot more likable than say, walking around with the Stars and Bars silk-screened across one’s T-shirt, Pham is soon sharing a smoke with his new pals.

In a similar way, if more Americans had an idea what good Vietnamese fish sauce was like, we’d be better friends with the Vietnamese. But while bottles of Thai nam pla and Filipino pastis are pretty easy to come by stateside, Vietnamese nuoc mam, isn’t, which is too bad, because it has a sweeter, deeper, smoother, more fifth-taste-flattering flavor than any other.