Bounty of the sea

Seafood lovers are forever satiated in Vietnam.

By Don Wills on February 09,2018 11:17 AM

Bounty of the sea

Photos: Ngoc Linh & Duc Vu

A Vietnamese friend of mine once explained to me why seafood was so important to Vietnam. ‘Look at the shape of our country on a map. What does it remind you of? A fish hook, right?’

My friend was correct - the outline of the country does resemble a fish hook, and yes, as he’d also said, seafood is indeed important to Vietnam. In fact, it is the main source of income for 10% of the population.

The popularity of seafood is clear for all to see. Walk past any seafood stall, look at the trays of fresh seafood sprinkled with ice out front, then check out the number of satisfied customers eagerly tucking into their meals. It’s not costing them all that much either. Besides being delicious, seafood here is relatively inexpensive, far cheaper than, say, lamb.

Striped catfish, shrimp, hard clams and crabs are the seafood most in demand, both for domestic consumption and for export. The main destinations for Vietnam’s seafood exports include the US, Japan, the EU, Russia, and Asia. Exports net over $6 billion a year for the country, ranking Vietnam among the Top 10 seafood exporters in the world.

Striped catfish, or pangasius, are raised in the Mekong Delta region, primarily in specially-constructed ponds on the banks of the rivers Hau and Tien, while tilapia - also a big part of the country’s seafood sector - are reared in floating cages in the rivers themselves. Tilapia are spiny-finned freshwater fish similar in appearance to perch and bass.

One of the best ways to sample catfish is by ordering Chả cá Thăng Long at your local seafood restaurant. A dish that originated in Hanoi, it’s both tender and crunchy. The fish fillets are marinated in turmeric, ginger, garlic and fish sauce. Over blazingly hot flames, the fish is seared until crispy on the outside, then served over onions, scallions and dill.

Bounty of the sea

Intensive farming of giant tiger shrimp and Pacific white shrimp was first begun in the central provinces. Today, however, the Mekong Delta has more intensive ponds than central provinces. The majority of shrimp farms have recently shifted from farming giant tiger shrimp to Pacific white shrimp, because of the latter’s advantages in rapid growth, high reproduction rates, and low risk of disease. A healthy parent prawn can breed and produce young four times every 12 days, with around 1 million eggs in each clutch. Two to three months after stocking, shrimp are partially harvested on every new moon and full moon.

Shrimp are readily available grilled over charcoal, but for an added taste treat, caramelised shrimp (tôm rim) can’t be beaten. Before grilling, the shrimp are covered with a sweet, salty, savoury paste of shallots, scallion, fish sauce and black pepper. Delectable.

The white hard clam inhabits intertidal and shallow sub-tidal sandy or muddy areas primarily around the coastline of the Delta’s Ben Tre province. The white hard clam is a filter feeder and sees the fastest growth rate during the wet season, when more nutrients wash into the tidal areas from nearby river systems. The average size at harvest when the clam is one year old is approximately 5 cm across.

Commercial harvesting of clams is done by hand rakes, sorted on site for size, and then transported via small boats to nearby processing facilities. The use of machinery for dredging of the clams is prohibited, to protect the environment.

Bounty of the sea

Vietnamese white hard clams have become popular throughout Asia, Europe, and most recently the US, due to its tasty meat and beautiful white shell colour.

Clam chowder, or cháo nghêu quẩy nóng, is an excellent way to try clams. The creamy, subtly sweet chowder contains lemongrass, onion, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, zucchini and coconut milk.

The two most popular varieties of crab in Vietnam are mud crabs and blue swimmer crabs.

Mud crab farmers benefit in several ways from stocking their pens with hatchery-reared mud crablets rather than those caught in the wild. Mud crabs are aggressive animals prone to cannibalism, but this is reduced when ponds are stocked with hatchery-reared crablets that are uniform in size. Typically, these young crabs also are disease-free and generally healthier because they were raised in hygienic conditions and had suitable feed and shelter.

Blue swimmer crabs are swimming crabs with their rear legs functioning as swimming paddles. The body shell is rough in texture. It is very broad and has a prominent projection on each side. The claws are long and slender. Blue swimmer crabs vary in colour from brown through blue to purple with pale mottling.

They live in sandy, muddy or algal and seagrass habitats or in the intertidal zone up to 50 metres in depth. They move to deeper water as they age and in response to changes in water temperature and inshore salinity.

Blue swimmer crabs are active swimmers, but when they are inactive they usually bury themselves in the bottom sediment, leaving only their eyes, antennae and gills exposed.

The biggest export market for Vietnamese crabs, with 47 per cent of the total value, is the US. Vietnam exports upwards of $50 million worth of crab to the country each year. Japan is the second-largest export market.

There’s no better way of savouring crab than by trying cua rang me, or tamarind sweet crab. Cracked pieces of crab are stir-fried in sweet and sour tamarind sauce flavoured with chilli, basil and garlic. Exquisite, and oh so moreish.

An important by-product of the seafood industry is the ubiquitous fish sauce, or nước mắm, as integral to Vietnamese cooking as salt and pepper are to Western cooking. Few dishes here are without it. Soups, stir-fries, and stews all have fish sauce in varying amounts, lending them a flavour that differentiates Vietnamese cuisine from most other countries. It’s also a popular dip.

Nước mắm is made from anchovies, salt, and water, and is usually used in moderation because of its intense flavour. The anchovies and salt are stored in wooden barrels to ferment, and are slowly pressed, yielding the salty, fishy liquid. The salt draws out the liquid via osmosis.

Two areas in Vietnam are most famous for producing fish sauce: Phu Quoc Island and Phan Thiet. Phu Quoc produces 30 million litres annually. The quality is determined by many factors. Most Vietnamese fish sauces are made with only two ingredients, without any additives like sugar, hydrolysed protein, or preservatives. Another factor is that the sauce should not have a particularly strong smell, and it should be transparent with a deep golden amber colour. ‘First press’ fish sauce, (sauce that is bottled from the first time the fermenting barrels are drained), is considered the best quality.

There is a popular variation of fish sauce called mắm, which is made the same way as fish sauce, except that both the fish and the liquid extract, not just the liquid, are kept. Mắm is also fermented for a shorter period than fish sauce. It is either eaten as is (uncooked), or cooked in soups or stir-fries.

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