During the first month of social distancing last year, like many others I kept myself fed with the standard quarantine cooking projects: sourdough bread and long braises that could be tended to while remotely working. But as days turned into weeks, I became one of the millions of Americans who suddenly lost their jobs. That, along with the sheer emotional toll of living in New York (which had become a Covid-19 epicenter), wore me down and left me craving an emotional salve in the form of a warm meal.
I decided to make arroz caldo, which is a Filipino rice porridge dish made with poached chicken and its broth. The name comes from the Philippines’ Spanish colonization, and literally translates to “hot rice.” Lugaw is another umbrella term for Filipino porridges, which can be made plain or with different savory proteins like pork or tofu, but arroz caldo is typically seen as a chicken dish. It’s a simple congee that became a miracle cure when my grandmother would give me a bowl when I was running a fever and it was what I needed when the pandemic made me realize how much I missed my family.
There were some roadblocks to this plan. Supermarket shopping descended into chaos— I knew things were bad when my local Japanese grocery shop was cleaned out of rice and ramen. I was completely overwhelmed by all the different recipes I found online so I called my mom for advice. She only had vague recollections of what the finished product should taste like, instead of actual measurements or instructions. Even once I’d successfully bought my ingredients, it was still missing the comforting punch of umami I’d been searching for.
Fish sauce is an umami-laden staple in Southeast Asian cuisines and a common element in arroz caldo recipes I’d read online. Unfortunately the ones in my local stories left a sweet, fishy aftertaste that threw the entire bowl off, so I left it out until I discovered Red Boat fish sauce. It was the closest thing to Filipino fish sauce, patis, I could find. Unfortunately it cost almost twice as much as comparable mass market ones. My partner gave me a little side-eye for springing for gourmet ingredients amidst an international crisis, but quickly fell in line when we both tasted that night’s batch of arroz caldo. Red Boat’s fish sauce was highly potent, but added the perfect amount of salinity to make the dish exactly how I remembered.
According to Cuong Pham, Red Boat Fish Sauce’s founder, the difference lies in his ingredients and process. Made in Phú Quốc, Vietnam, the brand uses black anchovies which are salted while still in fishing boats, to prevent spoiling. Pham says that by fermenting the fish for longer than the industry standard, the natural enzymes break down the flesh, reducing the “fishy” aftertaste and heightening the pure savory taste of the anchovies.
“[Phú Quốc’s traditional fish sauce preparation] will give you the highest level of protein, and that will translate it into the flavor,” he said over Zoom. “When you cook with the high protein fish sauce, the amino acids enhances and adds to complexity of the flavors in the dish.” Essentially, a great fish sauce works similarly to salt in that it makes your ingredients taste more like themselves.
The protein content of Pham’s fish sauce is rated at 40° N, (grams nitrogen per liter) which is more than twice the average amount of sauces I was finding at the grocery store. I found that my resulting arroz caldo simply tasted more comforting with the addition of Red Boat.
“That’s why people call Red Boat the secret ingredient,” Pham said when I told him about my arroz caldo quest. He also said the Vietnamese counterpart to arroz caldo, cháo gà, also calls for fish sauce, and it’s high umami content of the first-press fish sauce makes Red Boat the perfect pairing for warm comfort foods (his favorite being Thit Kho, a slowly braised pork dish).
“The first press is also special because it’s just like olive oil. It’s the first [product you get] after the 12 months fermentation process,” Pham said. While many mass-market fish sauces dilute their sauce or use subsequent presses, Red Boat’s sauce is highly concentrated, as is evident by its dark amber color and potent flavor.
For me, the pure anchovy salinity of Red Boat’s fish sauce was what sealed the deal for my homemade arroz caldo. It cuts through the heaviness of the broken down rice and rich chicken broth, so I can scarf down a whole bowl without feeling weighed down. It’s more like a gentle hug, which I really needed with social distancing.
While you may not be making arroz caldo like I am, adding a high quality fish sauce to your pantry can transform a good dish into a great meal. With all of the recipes I made through quarantine, I’d often reach for that bottle to add an extra kick of umami. And should you want to make your own arroz caldo, read on for what you’ll need and click here for my favorite recipe.
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The Fish Sauce
This is Red Boat’s classic fish sauce which first put the brand on the map. Made with wild-caught black anchovy and sea salt, you’re getting the first press for maximum freshness. If you’re used to lesser quality fish sauces, you may want to scale back how much you use, as its flavor is much more potent due to the higher protein content.
An Even More Decadent Fish Sauce
If you want a fancy upgrade, this fish sauce from Red Boat has a 50°N rating and is aged in bourbon and maple barrels. The resulting flavor is not only full of salty umami but it also has notes of sweetness to it.
Patis Fish Sauce
Although I’m now partial to the flavor of Red Boat’s fish sauce, I still should give a shout out to a Filipinx fish sauce. This is the brand I’d often see in the kitchens of my titas, though it’s harder to find in local stores.
The Perfect Rice
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what the name of this brand was until I tried to make my own arroz caldo last year. I just knew that it had a big red rose on the bag. This short-grain, glutinous rice is the absolute best for creating arroz caldo’s soft, sticky consistency.
A Heavy Duty Dutch Oven
When I make arroz caldo, I usually make enough that I’m able to send friends home with leftovers in quart containers. The large dutch oven from Great Jones is the perfect pot for such a massive undertaking, and the large surface area is great for tossing the uncooked rice grains with oily aromatics. The enameled cast iron also retains heat well, which was perfect for all the other long-simmered dishes I made through quarantine.
Sesame Oil to Garnish
Depending on what I’m craving, I sometimes drizzle a little sesame oil on top of my arroz caldo to lend a slight nutty flavor to it. Our Editorial Director Diana Tsui recommends this bottle from Kadoya.
A Sharp Chef’s Knife
A sharp chef’s knife is an essential tool for breaking up pieces of chicken or slicing thin slices of garlic. This Chef’s Knife was recommended by Chef David Nayfield of Che Fico and has a pleasant balance to its weight.
I grew up garnishing my arroz caldo with a few wedges of calamansi to add a smack of acidity just before serving. If you’re not able to find the small citrus fruit near you, a few drops of calamansi juice will also do the trick.