Cookbook Review: The secret is in the (fish) sauce

‘The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce’ by Cuong Pham with Tien Nguyen and Diep Tran (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25)

Cuong Pham left his native Vietnam in a fishing boat several years after the war ended. Nine months — counting the time he spent in a Malaysian refugee camp — passed before he landed in the U.S. at age 20, and reunited with the siblings who’d arrived before him.

To ease their homesickness while awaiting their mother’s immigration paperwork to clear, they tried their hand at the handwritten recipes she sent them. But those meals fell short of the memories.

Even after she joined them and started cooking for them again, those dishes didn’t smell or taste quite like home. The label on the fish sauce bottle explained why. The only versions available to them had a harsh, one-dimensional flavor vastly inferior to the unadulterated, umami-rich blends of black anchovies and salt they’d been weaned on.

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By then, Pham had built a tech career in the Bay Area. On a work trip to Saigon, he toured some artisanal fish sauce factories and took a bottle home to his mother. One whiff brought her to tears.

Pham set out to recreate that sauce using the prized fish from the island of Phu Quoc for American consumers, and after years of trial and error, began selling small batches under the Red Boat label. A New York Times blurb ignited a flurry of orders. Renowned chefs and prominent food writers declared their loyalty to the brand and home cooks stocked up.

To commemorate the company’s 10th anniversary, Cuong shares his story in “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook: Beloved Recipes from the Family Behind the Purest Fish Sauce” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25). With help from Red Boat research and development chef Diep Tran, he offers approachable Vietnamese classics that appear on his own kitchen table such as brisket pho, imperial rolls, taro shrimp fritters, and seven variations of nuoc cham (dipping sauce), along with savory riffs on burgers, pasta marinara, Caesar salad, and even a holiday turkey.

Brand loyalty aside, the lively storytelling and enticing ideas in “The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook” could convert you into a fish sauce fanatic, if you’re not one already.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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