When I first read about Red Boat on Ravenous Couples website, I was intrigued. I remembered fondly from my childhood in Saigon the pure fish sauce (nuoc mam) that was exported from the island of Phu Quoc to Saigon. My Saigonese friends would always laud it as the best. But, over the years, and only offered the same best option as everyone else outside of Vietnam, Three Crabs fish sauce, I forgot what made real nuoc mam so special.
That was until I exchanged emails with the owner of Red Boat Fish Sauce and learned we were only separated by the San Francisco Bay. When he offered to drop off some samples in person, I responded with an offer of lunch and a recipe adaptation I’d been playing around in mind with ever since I tried it at the restaurant owned by a friend who had escaped from Hanoi in the early 1980s. Called Loi’s, and now run by his sister, it’s still on Irving Street in San Francisco—serves the best North Vietnamese street cuisine in the city.
So, Red Boat owner, Cuong Pham and his director of sales and marketing, Robert Bergstrom, joined me for my experiment with bear and deer meat. First, though, I had to make a comparison. Before opening the bottle, we read the ingredients label: Red Boat has only salt and anchovy extract; Three Crab has anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein. Red Boat is the real deal!
Then, I poured into a small tasting bowl. It’s viscosity was impressive. Most nuoc mam pours out like water. Red Boat leaves the bottle like maple syrup.
But, it was the taste test that sold me: Three Crab is salty coming in and going past the tongue. Red Boat starts salty, but finishes sweet. It has a savoriness that reminds me of why for some back in the Vietnam nuoc mam makes a complete meal by being spooned over a small bowl of rice.
Filling a clay pot with the grilled black bear meatballs and marinated venison slices, I mixed up a batch of nuoc mam cham, the dipping sauce that you’re normally offered with Vietnamese cha gio (deep fried imperial rolls). And then that’s when I knew, beyond the shadow of doubt: Red Boat is THE BEST nuoc mam you can find in the United States!
Here’s the recipe for you to find out yourself:
There are three parts to Bun Cha. First is the ground meat, then the grilled whole meat, and then the vegetables that make such an aromatic and healthy meal.
It may look pretty involved, but once you have the veggies and meats all set up, the grilling and nuoc mam cham steeping is pretty quick and easy.
Nuoc Mam Cham
2 Cups water
½ Cup rice vinegar
½ Cup sugar
10 TBS fish sauce
2 small fresh chili peppers, chopped
- Bring the water with the vinegar up to boiling, then turn off the heat
- Pour in the sugar to dissolve
- Add the fish sauce and chopped fresh chilis
- Normally, you let this cool, but for Bun Cha, pour over the meat warm.
Cha Thit Gấu (Ground Bear Sausage)
1/2 lbs. ground bear meat
4 cloves of minced garlic
1 TBS sugar
1 TSP salt
1 TSP black pepper
1 TSP white pepper
1 TSP coconut caramel sauce, or molasses
1 egg beaten
- Mix all ingredients thoroughly
- Place in a non-reactive/non-metal container, covered, for at least an hour, or preferably overnight
- Form them into handball-sized meatballs and place a number of them on a skewer for easier manipulation on the grill
- Grill over a high heat coals, starting your cooking before the venison
- As bear meat is like wild pork in terms of parasites such as trichinosis, it’s important to cook the bear through. That’s doesn’t meant dry, but to an internal meat temperature of 160 degree Fahrenheit.
Thit Nai (Venison component)
1 lb venison roast, thinly sliced about 1/4 inch or so (not too thin that it’ll dry out during grilling)
1/8 Cup minced Lemongrass. If you live in temperate zone like California, worth growing in the backyard for a number of great recipes and teas, and it’s a natural mosquito repellent)
2 TBS sugar
1 TBS fish sauce
1 TSP ground pepper
2 Cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced.
1 TSP soy sauce
1 TBS molasses
- Mix everything but the venison
- Place the venison strips in a non-metal/ non-reactive container and cover
- Let the meat sit in marinade for at least an hour—I like to leave it overnight.
- Lay the meat strips in a fish or veggie-grilling basket to keep them from fall into the fir
- Grill the meat for four to five minutes on each side, to a brown or black on the outside and slight pink inside.
The Veggies and Rice Noodles
1 Bunch of Cilantro
1 Bunch of Thai basil leaves
1 Bunch of fresh mint leaves
1 Head of lettuce
2 Cups of pickled daikon and carrots in a seperate bowl for serving
Pickled Daikon and Carrots (Do Chua) recipe:
1/2 lb. carrots -shredded in food processor, sliced in thin rounds or thin match-like strips.
1/2 lb. daikon radish – cut same as carrots.
3 cups warm water
3 Tablespoons distilled or rice vinegar
2-3 tablespoons sugar, depending on how sweet you want your pickles
2 tablespoons salt
- Mixed the brine and heat for total saturation, and then after cooling, pour it into non-reactive container, like a ceramic pickling jar
- Shred the carrots and daikon into two to three-inch long thin strips
- Place the carrots and daikon in the brine, and let pickle for at least an hour before using. It can last for up to five months in the refrigerator.
Bun Cha Serving Steps:
- On a large serving dish, please a heaping mound of rice noodle. I use pretty much one full package of rice stick that I quickly dip into a hot pot of water, using a basket ladle. Only about a minute at the most to soften the noodles, and making sure to lift and drop to get most of the excess boiled water out
- As it continues to hydrate and become opaque white, lift and separate the bundle to give the noodles loft as they cool
- Once they’re just warm and not hot, you can begin an arrangement around the rice noodles of sliced cucumber, whole lettuce leaves and sprigs of mint or basil and sweet basil
- On another plate lay a stack of Bun Cha (cirular rice paper). It’s served with a bowl of warm water for diners to wet the Bun Cha to soften it enough to make a the roll
- Once everything but the meat is ready, and placed at the dining table, begin the cooking process for the two meats on the grill
- After the meat is cooked, place it in a pot, sliding the meatballs off the skewers. My preference is a traditional Asian claypot as it keeps the meat warm
- Warm up the nuoc mam cham, and pour over the barbecued meatLet the meat sit in the sauce for fifteen minutes, then serve.
How to eat Bun Cha:
- Take a bowl and place a softened piece of rice paper in the middle
- Grab pieces of cucumber, cilantro, lettuce, basil leaf and place them in line up the middle of the rice paper
- Place a thumb-thick collection of noodle strands on the line of veggies
- Using your chopsticks, collect a piece of venison and half or quarter of one of the meatballs and place along the line of noodles and vegetables
- Top with a few strands of the Do Chua
- Spoon some nuoc mam cham down the line
- Roll up the rice paper and eat like a Vietnamese burrito
- Cambodian Honey Bear Steaks
- Veteran’s Day Mendocino Bear
- Julia Child’s Ours Bourguignon (Bear Bourguignon)