Ingredient Spotlight: Fishsauce
For those of us less familiar with the foods of Asia, the words “fish” and “sauce” wouldn’t particularly sound like a tasty combination in the culinary sense. But if you enjoy savory and salty tastes such as soy sauce (think “umami”), we believe you may just start to warm up to fish sauce.
How do you make a sauce out of fish and bottle it up? Similar to how soy sauce is made, fish sauce is produced by the fermentation of fish (instead of soy beans) with salt and water added. Actually, anchovies are the kind of fish that are commonly used to create the traditional Southeast Asian dark caramel-colored fish sauce you see at a restaurant or supermarket. As ketchup is the go-to condiment in America, fish sauce is as just as ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cuisines like Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, and is also used in countries such as Philippines, Japan, Korea, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia. Interestingly, as common as fish sauce is in Asian cooking, history finds that it was actually the Ancient Romans who were found to have first utilized this condiment. In fact, Italian chefs today still use “garum” fish sauce in their dishes to add a strong depth of flavor.
This powerfully salty and savory sauce can be used in many ways, particularly to impart that fifth taste sensation, umami, to various dishes . We encourage exploratory chefs and foodies to try fish sauce in these ways:
- As a dipping sauce: if you’ve ever eaten Vietnamese egg rolls (chả giò) or any Thai dish, you’ll notice an accompanying fish dipping sauce. The Vietnamese prepared fish dipping sauce version is called “nuoc mam cham” and is actually sweet, salty, spicy and zesty since it incorporates water, lime, Thai chilies, garlic and sugar to the fish sauce. The Thai version, “nam pla prik,” is more concentrated and consist of simply fish sauce, lot of chopped Thai chili peppers, shallots (optional) and a splash lime juice (optional).
- In soups: instead of adding salt, experiment by adding a few drops of good fish sauce to your soup.
- In salad dressings or marinades: we found this delicious looking recipe for fish sauce chicken wings that uses fish sauce as a marinade
How to choose a good bottle of fish sauce
We found a wonderful recommendation from Kasma Loha-unchit of thaifoodandtravel.com on what to look out for when purchasing fish sauce. She states, “look for fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown color, like the color of good whisky or sherry, without any sediments. If the color is a dark or muddy brown, the sauce is likely to be either a lower grade, or one that is not properly or naturally fermented; it may also have been sitting on the shelf a bit too long. Good fish sauce also has a pleasant aroma of the sea, not an overwhelming smelly fishiness, and should not be overly salty.”