Nuoc-mam, a fragrant fish sauce, must be called the national dish of Vietnam. With the exception of rice, no other food can possibly take precedence over this dish.

Rice is filling, and, when properly prepared, is an excellent food. It is also comparatively reasonable in price. But even the best rice lacks the protein which is essential to good health and vitality. Fish, in its various forms, supplies much of this need for protein. Fresh fish, dried and salted fish, and nuoc-mam are the common ways that the catch of the fisherman is consumed in Vietnam.

To make nuoc-mam, 250 to 300 grams (8.8 to 10.5 oz.) of salt are added to each kilo (2-1/5 lb.) of fish, which is then placed in a vat with pressure applied to create constant compression of the ingredients. Six pounds of fish will produce 1 pint of nuoc-mam.

This process is continued from 4 months to a year. When bacterial fermentation has completed its action, the liquid is drawn off, strained and placed in containers made of clay. This liquid is nuoc-mam and, according to the Vietnamese, it is "the quintessence of concentrated nutritious fish."

Nuoc-mam is an excellent source of the amino acids needed by human beings. It is rich in nitrates and contains both iodine and vitamin B. However, a word of warning is advisable for those who are tempted to try it. Sometimes the Vietnamese use hot peppers to "spike up" the nuoc-mam. The unwary foreigner has a sudden sensation of being on fire internally. A very small taste is wise unless you have already seared your mouth, throat and stomach with "hot" foods. Some Americans learn to like this national dish so well that they have been seen to dip dessert, crackers, etc., into it.

There are a number of grades of nuoc-mam on the market. The most desired brand is produced on the island of Phu-Quoc in Southwest Vietnam. Nuoc-mam is to the Vietnamese what soya sauce would be to Chinese and Japanese diets. While the odors of nuoc-mam permeate the local markets, and overwhelm the foreigners' sense of smell at first, they seem to come from the empty containers rather than the usable nuoc-mam.

The customary way in which nuoc-mam is served is in small bowls for common use. While it may be spooned into the individual dish, the prevalent practice is to dip the food lightly into the bowl of sauce with a fork or chopsticks and then place in in the mouth.

While the taste of nuoc-mam seems strange at first, it is probably no more unusual to us than our Western dishes would seem to the Vietnamese.

Courtesy of the 1967 USMC Unit Leaders Personal Response Handbook