Our kitchen and household gadgets, our experimentations in the kitchen are our expressions of a DIY ethos we have the luxury to enjoy thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of our parents. We improvise because we can, Vietnamese immigrants of our parents’ generation improvised because they had to in order to eke out some measure of comfort in strange new lands.
For all the material richesse and political security provided by life in these United States (or Canada, Europe or Australia, wherever Vietnamese boat people ended up), that ultimate source of comfort, one’s mother’s flavor, is denied to the first wave of refugees. They would consider themselves exceedingly lucky if they were relocated to a major city, with ethnic grocery stores that carried soy sauce or rarer yet, nước mắm (fish sauce). If, like Bird, their favorite comfort food is bò nhúng dấm (beef hot pot with vinegar) which requires mắm nêm (anchovy sauce*) then they’re completely out of luck. Yet under these conditions, some ingenious soul invented a new way to make authentic tasting mắm nêm with ingredients one can find in any grocery store in the American heartland.
To make immigrant chic mắm nêm you’ll need canned anchovies (cá cơm), diced pineapple and chopped garlic. Flat anchovies in olive oil are best. First saute 2 cloves of chopped garlic in a little bit of olive oil from the anchovy can. Then add the anchovies and stir. After a minute or two add the pineapple, about equal volume to the anchovies. There is some protease (or something) in the pineapple that disintegrates the anchovies such that after another minute of stirring, you’re left with a rich brown sauce with pineapple bits in them. Add water to desired consistency, add sugar and salt to taste. That’s it!
Compared to traditional mắm nêm, the flavor is earthier and more complex. It’s fishier but not as pungent as traditional mắm nêm. I actually prefer the new way, Bird prefers the old preparation. Preferences are similarly split when we tested the different sauces with our friends and family. Pretty good for an improvised kludge.
Bird adds thin slices of cucumber to her mắm nêm for crunchiness. To make the cucumber slices: wash cucumber, leave the skin on, quarter cucumber lengthwise, cut out cucumber seed, leaving only the white part and the skin, then slice the cucumber into thin slices. Thin slices of cucumber are sprinkled with salt. After an hour or so, the cucumber is washed with water and squeezed dry. Add cucumber to mắm nêm just before serving.
* Both mắm nêm and nước mắm are made from anchovies. The difference in their manufacture can be compared to the processes to make ketchup and tabasco sauce. Mắm nêm is ground anchovy meal fermented and preserved with salt; nước mắm is the nectar extracted from anchovies with salt, the solid portion of the fish being left behind.