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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Red Boat and Ingredient Driven Food

One of the important elements for me, when it comes to food, is the quality of the ingredients I use when cooking.  This has brought me into contact with a wide variety of food producers who focus on ingredients and quality of flavors.  One of these producers is the guys behind Red Boat Fish Sauce which is a product I have mentioned previously as a new flavor in my cooking.  These guys are now back in Vietnam and working out some new products and flavors that they intend to bring to the U.S. market. (Update:  Red Boat Fish Sauce is now on the market at Amazon. )

Now, as for the area, they are on Phu Quoc Island, a small island which is located in the Sea of Siam, my friend Rob sent a few shots of this paradise, I think he is bragging that he is getting paid to lounge on a beach and eat Vietnamese food.  Here is one of the shots...
The Phu Quoc harbour and it's fleet.  A mix of the fishing and merchant fleet.  This is the kind of fleet that goes out and seeks the squid, octopus and fish that dominate the cuisine of any island in the Sea of Siam.  This is also the source for the Black Anchovy that forms the base of the fish sauce the island is famous for.  The food is what it is all about for me, here is a 'simple' breakfast typical of the area.   Well, maybe not exactly typical...
Well, back to the fish sauce, one of the processes that is key to a fish sauce product is the blending of the barrels to create a flavorful product.  While the base sauces are fermented in barrels with just salt and anchovies, the large tanks is where these base sauces are blended to create a flavorful product.  This is an important step, since there are no added flavors or ingredients to moderate or simplify the flavors, no gluten products, no MSG and no sugar added.  These tanks are a work of art...
As old and traditional as the tanks and process may seem, the desire to create a consistent and artisanal product inevitably has an aspect of science to it.  The tasting occurs within a slightly more controlled environment.  Here is what the base sauces look like during tasting.  Anyone familiar with the process of blending wine will find this shot to be very familiar...
As cool as all of this is, and I do find this process and ingredient very cool, I am even more enthused about the new venture these guys are looking at.  Phu Quoc Island has had a long thriving pepper market with a very fine black pepper coming out of their hand work intensive process.  Ever wonder what a pepper orchard looks like?  It looks a lot like this in Viet Nam.
As a BBQ guy, why do these exotic flavors matter?  Can't I just buy black pepper from the market and be happy.  Well, yes, and no, these peppercorns are something special.  Black Pepper is a huge component of the traditional BBQ flavor profile now.  Brisket and ribs, pulled pork and chicken, all rely upon the intense power of ground black pepper.  The first sample of Phu Quoc Black pepper was the most intense and complex flavor of black pepper I have ever tried.  Here is a shot showing the fresh harvest, you don't see this kind of thing if you don't go to the source like the Red Boat guys are doing.
See those berries?  Do you see all the different colors, each of these represents a varied level of ripening and a different flavor profile and intensity.  These are hand picked and the berries are hand sorted, this insures that that the product can reflect each stage of the peppers flavor.  One of the great things that will come out of this is that a true white pepper corn will soon be available from these guys, not the bleached versions most common to the U.S. market, but the fruitier and more moderate white pepper that can be developed through thorough ripening and hand cleaning.  Here are some peppers out for drying, these are hand raked to encourage sun drying without damage to the drupes.
Here are a couple more shots of how this fish sauce and pepper corns end up in food.  I really think Rob sends me these because he knows I hate the idea of flying and that I love the idea of street food and cooking over buckets.
Here is another shot, the standard cute girl with banh xeo.  In this case, a stuffed Vietnamese crepe.  Okay, maybe the web sites you go to don't feature this kind of shot, I happen to see this kind of shot a lot, since I spend most of my online time looking for food ideas.

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