Instead of selling raw materials to foreign food producers, more and more Vietnamese food businesses are exporting quality branded products to strict markets like the U.S. or European Union (EU) for higher values.
“It’s exciting to see American families knowing about and using Vietnamese fish sauce in cooking,” remarked Dan Thanh, a Vietnamese American living in New York.
It came as a pleasant surprise to Thanh that an American friend of hers had introduced her to Red Boat, a Vietnamese brand of fish sauce that was being sold at Whole Foods, a popular American supermarket chain exclusively featuring foods without artificial preservatives, sweeteners, hydrogenated fats, and other additives.
Cuong Pham, general director of Red Boat’s parent company Quoc Huong, said his journey to get the brand into U.S. supermarkets began as early as 2006.
After visiting fish sauce-making facilities on Phu Quoc Island, off southern Vietnam, Cuong decided to buy a small one to produce his own version of the iconic condiment, as no manufacturers at the time could guarantee to meet the standards he needed for export.
Cuong wanted no flavor enhancer in his fish sauce, whereas all the firms insisted that the condiment would not taste as good without such an additive.
To market his product to U.S. customers, the general director took to decorated American chefs, who are by themselves always in search of new ingredients to renovate their menus.
From good reviews and recommendations by the chefs, Cuong’s Red Boat brand began gaining traction in the U.S. market and was being featured in prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
After two years, the Vietnamese brand had made its way into a network of over 450 Whole Foods markets across the U.S., Canada and the UK.
Red Boat was shifting the cooking habits of American families who had been used to the taste of diluted fish sauce, Cuong said.
“Even Caucasian Americans are now beginning to add fish sauce directly to their dishes,” Cuong said.
His fish sauce is now sold at even more supermarkets in the EU countries, Australia, and Singapore.
While unbranded Vietnam-grown rice is being exported in large quantities at no more than US$400 per metric ton, some local companies have taken the initiative to ship quality rice under their own brand at between $2,000 and $3,000 per metric ton.
Following the success of other pioneers, Ho Chi Minh City-based rice exporter Ecotiger has recently introduced their rice brand Ecorice to Canadian, U.S. and EU markets.
In order for their rice to meet strict standards set out by such markets, the company has had to cooperate with farmers in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh to grow organic rice using farming methods approved by the U.S., the EU and Japan.
Such rice farms employ a model known as rice-shrimp farming, in which naturally abundant shrimp postlarvae are used as natural compost for the rice instead of synthetic fertilizers.
When the paddy fields suffer from an infestation, famers would fill them with water for up to two hours to get rid of the insects rather than use toxic pesticides.
With such an organic method of farming, Ecorice products have been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and equivalent authorities in European countries and Japan.
“We are taking steps to introduce the organic products to the domestic market as well, and our vision is to expand our rice farms to 450 hectares in the near future,” said Nguyen Van Hung, general director of Ecotiger.