2020, May, 19
Fermented condiments of Vietnam.
- Bần village's Tương -
The abundancy of fermented condiments in Asia is really amazing. If I only focus on Japan, most of the fundamental condiments such as soy sauce, Miso, Sake, Mirin and vinegar are all fermented. Without these, Japanese cuisine never is done. Moreover, these condiments hold so much character by regions like the terroir of the wine. However, the ingredients for making these condiments are very simple. Just grains and water. And some needs salt to ferment but some doesn't. How we ferment these ingredients change the results. Can you imagine the whole of Asia has so much terroir-based fermented condiments by mountains and by valleys? It's really overwhelming how people created their food cultures.
Vietnamese fermented condiments
So, let's turn our eyes to Vietnam here, which is my favourite country. The most famous fermented condiment is the fish sauce: nước mắm. It's made of fish and salt and fermented up to 2 years.
If you've ever travelled to Vietnam, you may have found more. The purple-ish coloured paste which is stronger than nước mắm, thick soy sauce, light tasted vinegar and rice paste. They're all fermented.
The fermented condiment I'd like to introduce you today is Tương. Tương is generally made of soybeans and fermented. In the northern part of Vietnam, like in the suburb of Hanoi, its texture and appearance are like a liquidy Miso or a mixture of soy sauce and Miso. As a Miso lover, I was so much excited to find a Miso-ish ferment of Vietnam. I'm really keen on the connections of our food cultures. (Yes, and also I'm a ferments nerd.)
When I asked the locals, they described Tương was closer to Miso rather than soy sauce and much funkier than Miso. Then found it's impossible to suppress
my curiosity towards Tương, so I visited a brewery to find how it tasted like, how it's made and how they grew Koji. It all happened November in 2018.
The area called Bần* is around 30km south-east from Hanoi. The fermented condiments made of soybeans produced in this area are called 'Bần village's
Tương' and you can find Tương Bần. The ingredients are soybeans, glutenous rice Koji, salt and water. Another kind of Tương also exists in different parts of Vietnam and they're also named by the places; as '〇〇 village's Tương'
Before I headed to a private brewery tour, what the interpreter kindly informed me was a bit funny. He went,
'Tương Bần isn't very popular among young people.'.
At the right point when my dream was coming true, I was really excited but he made me really calm down. Thanks. To be honest, I wasn't disappointed (off course, he didn't mean to) because Miso also less consumed in Japan because young generations tend to eat non-Japanese dishes these days. Anyways, we moved on to the tour.
*Thị trấn Bần Yên Nhân, Mỹ Hào, Hưng Yên
How Tương Bần is made.
We visited one of the family-run breweries of the area. The family follows the grandmother's recipe to produce their Tương Bần.
１, Making Koji.
Wash glutenous rice carefully, soak in the water, steam, spread the rice on the thin bamboo basket and let it sit for a week. Stir the rice once a day to grow mold until they turn into golden yellow.
What very interesting was this way was totally different from what Japanese brewer had been doing. The Japanese brewers don't grow mold that longer and they stir the rice quite often compare to this method.
I've never seen glutenous rice Koji in Japan and also this casual way of making Koji. I've heard that some farmers in Japan were doing this way but these days it's rare to find it.
This room is for the Koji to grow naturally. It was in November when I was in this
place, so the temperature was like between 25-35℃. No incubator or fire to generate heat for Koji but the climate supported them to grow.
Traditionally Koji making in Japan happens in Winter the most. Because the ingredients, such as rice and soybeans, are harvested in autumn and be ready in winter. And also there's not much work while in winter on the farms so the people can focus on making Koji for Miso and Sake. I don't say that the Japanese make Koji only in winter but less in summer.
２, Ferment soybeans
Wash soybeans carefully, roast and make them into flakes. Put the soy flakes in the jar with water and let it sit for a week with a lid on. The mixture starts fermentation and produces the funky flavour like Natto.
Can you see the bubbles in the jar? It's the sign of some bacterias started a party. Placing the jar under the hot sun without salt means huge for them. Because the warm place is really comfy for many species and no salt means like no parents at home. They do whatever they like. And the time when salt arrives, the party for most guys are over. I hope it makes sense for you.
This way of fermenting soybeans can't be seen in Japan. Neither soy sauce nor Miso. I know some parts of Japan ferment soybean paste and let it sit for a while without Koji and salt to attract useful bacterias but it only happens in winter. The method of leaving roasted flaky soybeans in the water under the hot sun is so new for me.
３, Put the Koji and the fermented soybean water together.
Put the Koji and the fermented soybean water in a plastic bag and let it sit for 3days.
４, Put everything in one jar
The fermented soybean water, the soften Koji and salt come into the fermentation jar.
In general, Koji brakes sugar with its enzyme after touches water, so the purpose of 3, was maybe to make something like Amazake for the following fermentation goes faster, that's what I guess.
５, Stir the mix every day for 3 months and keep it under the sun.
In the northern part of Vietnam, there're 4 seasons, so compare to the south there're sometimes it chills. And the speeds of fermentation changes by the climate. So the brewer checks the condition of each jar if it's enough fermented.
I got the tasting from the jars. The one which was in the early fermentation had the wonderful sweetness of Koji and the flavour of roasted soybeans. The 3months-fermented one tasted much deeper and complexity of Umami. The power of fermentation was in there.
Speaking of Japanese Miso, we never place them under the sun. If homebrewing soy sauce, there are some people ferment their soy sauce in the sun and mix often, but in general, soy sauce ferments in the shade up to 2 years. I'd also like to mention that big factory heat soy sauce and Miso to ferment faster to sell more, but never be under the sun. It's totally new to me.
６, Bottling the matured mix form the jar.
The brewer said it keeps for 10 years or more. They don't keep it chill in a fridge but just mix the bottle sometimes when they use it.
I can't stop wondering if the mix in the bottles keeps on fermenting. The brewer never mentioned about the pasteurising process and the bottle I was gifted tasted much stronger and funkier than the one I tasted at there.
If the bacterias are still in the mix, they may produce gas and it'll blow up the bottle. But all the bottles in front of the brewery looked neat and fine. I'll ask about this next time when I come across the producer.
How to use Tương Bần?
Food culture is really abundant. Because, Tương Bần's ingredients are soybeans, Koji and salt as Miso are but the texture and flavour are very different. Japan doesn't have fermented condiments like Tương Bần and I wonder why we don't.
Actually, the flavour is a bit strong to be accepted by the majority of Japan but the fresh-made one was really good. Probably the young Vietnamese also prefers the younger one. I don't say I don't like the flavour but kind of hesitate to cook something at home. Because the strong flavour flies around when I simmer something. Nevertheless, I would be happy to eat if someone serves me.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any dishes cooked with Tương Bần at the eateries in Hanoi and areas around. What I only found was a dipping sauce made of Tương Bần. People dip vegetables and summer rolls but still rare to find though. Now I can see that young generations in Hanoi don't enjoy Tương Bần so much. Fish sauce and soy sauce fits many ingredients and Tương Bần is served when people visit their grandma. Not sure about the young people in other regions but the young people Hanoi was like this.
The interpreter told me that the most common dish with Tương Bần was a boil-up of fish and pork. When I searched on the web, I found similar recipes with bananas, shallots and porks. People put something similar to molasses to cook with Tương Bần.
（This dish isn't cooked with Tương Bần but a similar one.）
I haven't discovered enough about Tương Bần yet though the first contact was like this. Now I can't step forward using Tương Bần to cook fish at home but I wish to meet a lovely grandma who cooks great with Tương Bần someday. I know some ferments in Japan also tastes strong and takes time to get used to it, so I need some more time.
If you know something about Tương Bần, please let me know.