What's in that Stuff Anyway??

If you go to the Golden Bell (1112 17th Avenue, SW), try the #62...but don't forget the fish sauce! 

I am convinced there is something addictive in Vietnamese Fish Sauce.

I hadn’t eaten the south Asian cuisine until about 15 or 20 years ago, when we discovered a great place down in Calgary’s Chinatown.  It was mom and pop place, packed every lunch hour with federal government workers (Canadian, since the federal government building was literally across the street, but those of us at the US ConGen were regulars too), cops, lots of others from nearby businesses, and a handful of Chinatown locals too.

Being new to Vietnamese, but taking what I knew I liked from other Asian cuisines, I quickly became a fan of bun(there should be an accent over the "u", and if I can figure out how to add, I'll do that later)- vermicelli rice, served with a range of different proteins and other toppings.  My favorite is a bowl of the warm noodles topped with grilled pork, fried spring rolls cut into segments, the lettuce, carrot and beansprouts and ground peanuts that are a staple, and, on occasion, some grilled shrimp too.

But bun is not complete without the side bowl of “fish sauce” (Nuoc Cham--also has some accents and markings I probably won't find on my keyboard) poured over the entire dish before the eating commences.

And I swear there’s something in that sauce.

I’ve done some poking around, and the ingredients in are pretty much the same in all the recipes and are easily obtainable, provided you have a good-sized Asian market near nearby.

Fish sauce itself (which is made from dried anchovies, salt and water) is best bought bottled in the store (do not try this at home, I don’t think); in fact, every recipe I sourced has as an ingredient “fish sauce”, so what you are doing is enhancing the flavour with the extra ingredients, which can include but I suppose are not limited to water, sugar, garlic, and chilis (dry flakes or fresh, your choice) for some heat. You can add some lemon or lime juice too, if you like. The recipes all look easy, and it seems that all you have to do is find the balance that makes your taste buds happy.

Anyway, look it up if you want to try, but as you can see, these are pretty straightforward ingredients, so it’s gotta be something in the bottled fish sauce.

So, a week or so ago, I found myself on my own, hot (it seems as though it’s been scorching almost every day lately) and hungry and looking for a bite.

Golden Bell Vietnamese fits the bill; it’s a short walk from the apartment, it’s relatively quiet, and it’s air conditioned. Check, check, and check.

I order up the usual, along with a plate of Shrimp Salad Rolls—vermicelli and shrimp with sprouts and lettuce and basil, rolled in a rice paper envelope—perfect with a side of hoisin sauce dotted with hot chili sauce.

Sometimes I feel too predictable, ordering the same thing, but I have it infrequently enough that a) it’s always a treat and b) it’s great to compare how different places prepare the same dish, and c) the people who are serving me have no idea that I have such a boring repertoire when it comes to Vietnamese food.

The Bun doesn’t disappoint.  I pour the fish sauce over the top and stir up the dish with my chopsticks.  It’s fresh and the slices of pork are grilled nicely, and the spring rolls are decently crispy.  I add a little hoisin to the bowl to pump up the flavours, but it’s the fish sauce that enhances everything.  


Yet I’m still left to wonder what the secret ingredient is that makes me come back, time and again, to a bowl of steamed rice noodles and a few simple ingredients.

Just another secret of the Universe, I guess.