If you’ve ever eaten at a Thai, Vietnamese, or any other Southeast Asian restaurant, you’ve definitely had fish sauce. This complex (and, yes, a little stinky) ingredient is a powerhouse of flavor. We all need to have a bottle of fish sauce in our pantries.
What is Fish Sauce?
Fish sauce is a light, reddish-brown, liquid made, in-part, through a lengthy fermentation process. Oily fish and salt are layered together in large barrels and good, food-friendly bacteria begins to break down the fish. Anchovies are most often used to make fish sauce, but mackerel, krill, and shrimp can also be used. For upwards of two years, these salty, fish-filled barrels undergo this natural fermentation process. Once the right concentration of flavors have been met, the mixture is pressed, clarified, and fish sauce emerges – voila! The resulting brew is super savory, fishy, salty, a little sweet, and supercharged with umami.
Using Fish Sauce
Fish sauce has been a prime ingredient in recipes for thousands of years and was a well-known ingredient throughout the ancient world. Anywhere with a warm climate with access to oily fish, was the ideal place to make fish sauce.
Fish sauce’s primary objective is to enhance flavor, similar in the way that salt is used. Unlike salt, fish sauce has that little extra umami oomph, imparting savoriness as well as salt. In today’s modern cooking, we mostly see fish sauce used in Asia, and robustly so in the coastal countries throughout the southeast.
Fish Sauce Roll Call: Nam pla (Thailand), Teuk trei (Cambodia), Nam pa (Laos), Patis (Philippines), Nuoc cham (Vietnam), Yulu (China), Gyosho (Japan), Eojang (Korea), Colatura (Italy), Worcestershire sauce (England), and Ngan bya yay (Burma).
Some traditional fish sauce-themed dishes inclde Pad Thai, Spicy Coconut Curries, Pho, Khao Soi, and Larb Salads. Even adding a little dash or two of fish sauce to recipes in your regular rotation would add a tasty umami element. (I add a little fish sauce to my chicken noodle soup, my little secret ingredient, and the results are amazing.)
Sourcing and Storing Fish Sauce
Most grocery stores will carry fish sauce. If you’re looking for regional/country specific fish sauce, check out a market that specializes in the ingredients of that area. Be sure to check the ingredient label on the back of your fish sauce before purchasing. Some cheaper fish sauces throw in all sorts of unnecessary additives, look for minimal ingredients (most prominent being fish, salt, and sugar). Fish sauce will keep for 3-4 years, bottled, at room temperature.