“The first three days of the new year,” Cuong Pham says, “we’re not supposed to do anything but enjoy life. People believe that the way you spend the first day carries on for the rest of the year—so you don’t want to spend it working!”
You don’t often hear Pham talking about not working; as the founder of cult condiment brand Red Boat fish sauce, he’s a little busy. But nothing gets in the way of Tết.
Tết is Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, and in a country with few national holidays, “there’s nothing bigger.” Children receive lipstick-red envelopes stuffed with crisp bills. Adults visit elders to pay their respects. Temples are packed with worshippers seeking prosperity for the year ahead. And with virtually all restaurants closed for the holiday, everyone has a pot of something on the stove.
In the Pham family, that’s thit kho trung: pork and hardboiled eggs simmered to a lazy softness in a sticky glaze of fish sauce, coconut soda, and garlic. It’s the kind of dish you make by the cauldron and keep on the stove for days at a time, where it cures and improves with age. Tết’s no-work-allowed edict even extends to cooking at home, Pham explains, so in the days leading up to the new year, his mother made enough to last the family a week. These days, Tết parties with his extended family in the San Jose area can climb to 50 hungry revelers around the table. Thit kho trung provides.
“It’s such a nostalgic dish for us,” Tracy Pham tells Caravan. “My mom would make it all the time, and there’s something about that combination of pork and eggs with the super savory sauce, it’s so good.” Tracy and her sister Tiffany are Red Boat’s chief revenue officer and global operations director respectively. They’re also Cuong’s daughters, and no one’s more surprised than they are that they wound up joining the family business. “Ever since I was in college, my dad would say, ‘You’re going to work here,’ and I’d tell him no,” Tracy continues. “I think we had to make the decision on our own terms.”
“I was traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia,” Tiffany Pham jumps in, “because our dad always instilled in us the necessity of seeing other people’s perspectives, and that gave me some space to think it over.” She and her older sister found themselves unfulfilled working in tech and operations jobs around the Bay Area, and after months of Tracy pushing her to consider learning the family business, the daughters Pham took the plunge together. “We’re very close, and our dad is passionate and intense about the business, so we each wanted someone to turn to.”
Since launching during Tết in 2011, Red Boat has risen to the cream of the fish sauce crop. Cuong has nurtured lifelong relationships with fisherman on Phu Quoc island, and in spite of exponential growth in demand, the Pham family has stuck to traditional, time-intensive production methods. Fresh black anchovies are tossed with heaps of sea salt in enormous wooden barrels, where they ferment for months before getting pressed, like wine grapes or olives, to squeeze out a concentrated amber liquid packed with umami.
Just a few drops can add a rich, complex savoriness to everything from pho broth to salad dressing, but when the Pham clan makes a batch of thit kho trung, they pour in cup after cup of the family fish sauce. After hours of simmering with pork, garlic, and coconut soda, that sauce reduces down to a heady, lipsmacking caramel, the concentrated essence of Vietnamese cooking in a one-pot meal that calls for nothing but steamed rice.
“The fish sauce is key,” Cuong says. He’s talking about the braised pork. But also everything else.