Salt of the earth, fish of the sea

In Recipes on May 5, 2011 at 5:21 am

I have been reading Salt: a World History by Mark Kurlansky.  Though you may think a history of salt doesn’t sound very exciting it was (surprisingly) compelling.  I didn’t realise how many settlements had been settled, fortunes made and lost, wars fought – over plain old salt.  The fact that everyone needed salt, for their health, to add flavour to cooking, for preservation in the times before canning and refrigeration, for vital chemical processes (one of the earliest being the dyeing of fabric), meant that that the person or administration that controlled the local salt trade, quickly became very rich indeed.  The ruling elite soon realised that there were other ways to make money out of salt –  some of the first taxes ever imposed were salt taxes.  Of course, everybody had to pay them because, rich or poor, they all needed salt, making these taxes popular with despots and tyrants and extremely unpopular with the masses.

It was early in the piece that humans discovered a natural affinity between salt and the fishing industry.  In Roman times salt fish or salsamentum were already established as a lucrative trade item.  The innards and the scraps left over from the salt fish industry were placed in earthern jars with salt to produce the Roman condiment garum.  Even earlier than the Romans, the Chinese were also making a fermented fish sauce called jiang.  This, with the addition of soybeans and the removal of the fish from the recipe, eventually became soy sauce.  Fish sauce is, however, still widely used today throughout South East Asia.

In Vietnam, instead of adding salt directly, the cook will often use fish sauce or nuoc mam to provide seasoning.  This is similar to the way Chinese cooks add soy sauce to their dishes.  Fish sauce is also widely used in Vietnam as a component of dipping sauces – these are served with almost every meal.  Here is a recipe for dipping sauce that I found in Luke Nguyen”s book, Songs of Sapa.  

Nuoc Mam Cham


3 tbs fish sauce

3 tbs rice vinegar

2 tbs sugar

2 garlic cloves (chopped)

1 bird’s eye chilli (thinly sliced)

2 tbs lime juice


Mix the fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugar and 125 ml water in a small saucepan and place over medium heat.  Stir well and cook until just below boiling point.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.  To serve, add garlic, chilli and lime juice.  Will store for up to 5 days in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator.  I served mine with another of Luke Nguyen’s recipes, Prawn and Corn Fritters.

 Prawn and Corn Fritters

1oo g (1/3 cup) plain flour

1/2 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

2oo g raw tiger prawns (peeled, deveined and roughly chopped)

2oog raw corn kernels (from 2 cobs)

2 spring onions (finely sliced)

1 garlic clove (finely chopped)

2 red Asian shallots (finely chopped)

2 eggs lightly beaten

vegetable oil for deep frying

125 ml nuoc mam cham (see above) for serving


Combine the flour, paprika and turmeric, mix well.  Place the chopped prawns in a large bowl, season with 1/2 tsp  each of salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Add the corn kernels, spring onions, garlic, shallots and eggs.  Mix to coat the prawns, then gradually add the flour, mixing until well combined.  The mixture will be very thick.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok to 180 c or until bubbles form around the handle of a wooden spoon inserted into the oil.  Shape the batter with two spoons or with your wet hands into small patties.  Drop into the hot oil and fry for 3-4 mins or until crisp and brown.  Remove and drain on a rack, serve immediately.

Luke Nguyen's Prawn and Corn Fritters

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