The secret ingredient in these salty caramels? Fish sauce.
The sea salt caramels from Little Flower Candy Co. in Pasadena have long seemed to have the kind of currency salt itself once had, for sale in little bags at various shops, including the Little Flower restaurant and at Lincoln, both Pasadena restaurants operated by owner Christine Moore and executive chef Cecilia Leung. Lately, those caramels have come in a flavor other than salt, vanilla and chocolate: fish sauce.
Red Boat fish salt, actually. Both salt and sauce are made by the company Cuong Pham founded in San Francisco in 2006. Red Boat is produced on Vietnam’s Phú Quoc island, where the black anchovies and salt used in the sauce are caught and harvested. The company also sells palm sugar sourced from small, family-owned Cambodian farms; the fish salt and palm sugar are two of the five ingredients (also: cream, sugar, corn syrup) in Little Flower’s caramels.
“It’s the salt that clings to the barrels after the fish sauce is drained,” said Diep Tran, whose Highland Park restaurant Good Girl Dinette closed last year. Tran, who used to cure bacon at Good Girl with the fish salt, is now Red Boat’s R&D chef for special projects. It was her idea to ask Leung to develop the Red Boat caramels.
“Just wait till you try the latest version. Silky. Sexy,” said Leung, who, with the staff at Little Flower makes caramels five days out of seven. Leung’s family came to L.A. from Hong Kong and Guangdong rather than Vietnam, but her fondness for the umami bomb that is nước mam crosses all borders.
“The palm sugar married with the fish salt is the prominent flavor,” Leung said recently from across a table strewn with caramels — original sea salt; two batches of Red Boat — at Little Flower. “I grew up using market brand fish sauce, and the flavor is probably like 1/10th what Red Boat has,” Leung said.
When my family escaped the communist takeover of Vietnam and settled in Southern California in 1975, we gained freedom but lost good fish sauce.
Leung paused, contemplating the pile of wrapped caramels in front of her. “Flavor is addictive.” True. Twenty years after the founding of Little Flower Candy Co., I can attest that those original sea salt caramels were indeed my gateway drug — to, well, more caramels.
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