Wiley and I decided to head to the source of fish sauce. My mom loves her fish sauce and swears by Tra Chang brand, so we went out looking for it. Tra Chang (and many other brands for that matter) are located around Rayong province (Thai: ระยอง). Rayong is really close to my mom's house in Sattahip and it was a short 45 minutes before we were surrounded by fishing boats in Rayong city. We saw the Tra Chang logo off in the distance on a building and a local (thinking it was funny that we wanted to go see how fish sauce was made) told us how to get there. We drove along a narrow isthmus packed full of drying fish, fishing boats and cement fish sauce vats.
Surprisingly, we found Tra Chang with ease and wandered in. The daughter of the owner met with us and showed us the packing and explained the process to us. Fish is brought in, salted with a little sugar, placed in cement vats for 1 1/2-2 years, drained and bottled up. Pretty simple, right?
She explained quality to us. They have two levels of quality. 1 1/2 year (18 Baht) is more diluted and is used more for general purpose cooking and 2 year (34 Baht) is more for sauces and finishing dishes. I asked if there was a 3 year and they said it would be too dark to eat. Also, glass bottles are better for storage and you should try to keep it out of the sunlight. When you buy fish sauce, look at the ingredients. There should only be three ingredients: fish, salt and a small amount of sugar. This is why the Tra Chang logo has a scale with a white brick that says "100%" representing salt on the right side and fish and shrimp on the left side.
Shrimp is on the logo because they also make grapi, fermented shrimp paste. We checked that operation out, too. The best grapi is made only with a tiny species of shrimp and salt. First the shrimp are dried in the sun, mixed with salt, fermented and ground up. The picture above with the wheelbarrow full of a the reddish purple paste is the grapi ready to be packed.
The owner (the man with Wiley and Ahmalie pictured above) was nice enough to get up from a nap and chat with us. His eyes looked they could see for miles and his demeanor was that of person who stood by his actions and by the quality of his life's work. I asked about depleting fish stocks in our oceans. He didn't seem too concerned about over fishing, because the products he uses utilize the smallest fish and shrimp in the food chain. The only costs that increase for his company are labor and energy.
After the tour we went to go get lunch out farther along the isthmus and watched a rain storm come off the Gulf of Thailand and swallow up the awaiting container boats offshore.