What's Fabulous: Fish Sauce

Pungent, Salty, Umami, and Irresistible

What's Fabulous: Fish Sauce

Pungent, Salty, Umami, and Irresistible

Fish sauce, or "nam pia" or "nam plam" as it's known in Thai, or by other various other names depending on its country of origin, is a seasoning used in the cuisines of South Asian countries -- Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia-- as well as of Japan, Korea, China, Burma and the Philippines.  

A whisky-brown thin liquid, fish sauce is made from fermented fish -- usually anchovies -- plus salt, water, and sometimes a little sugar.  In western cuisine its closest cousin is Worcestershire sauce, which also includes fermented anchovy, as well as garlic, vinegar, molasses, and other sweet and savory flavors. 

But fish sauce is pure umami, that savory, salty, meaty, high glutamate flavor that is the hallmark of much of Asian cooking and what makes so many of its dishes addictively delicious.

Fish sauce is known best for being used in Thai curries and Pad Thai, the popular noodle dish.  But it is also added to soups, marinades, salad dressings, sauces, stir fries, and simple dipping sauces.  Used as you might soy sauce or tamari, adding a few generous drops of fish sauce to scrambled eggs and leftover cooked rice turns something simple into a complex-tasting dish.  

Fish sauce is made from fermenting fish, most commonly anchovies but in some countries the sauce is made from sardines, dried fish, squid, mackerel, or other local seafood.  The juices from the fermented fish are pressed out and combined with salted water, and sometimes also sugar to counter the saltiness.  The result is pungent, tangy, savory and salty.

Because the flavor is redolent of anchovies, you can use it in any dish that calls for anchovies when these little salty fish are being used as a base flavoring, including some classic Italian pasta sauces.  For anyone who is keeping limits on the salt in their diet, fish sauce should be used carefully as its sodium content is very high.

Buying Fish Sauce

With the rise in popularity of South Asian cooking, fish sauce is now easy to find in the Asian ingredient section of most grocery stores, in Asian markets, and online.  It's also available in spice markets like Kalustyan's.

Two very popular brands are Tiparos and Golden Boy. Roland Foods, a company that imports high quality ingredients and products from around the world, also has several very good Thai fish sauces under their label.

Fish sauce can vary in price but is almost always well under $8 for a 24 oz. or so bottle.  It's usually sold in plastic bottles, some of which have squeeze tops.  Occasionally the amount of salt in the sauce causes some crystallization at the bottom of the bottle, but this is totally harmless and can dissolve on its own with a little shake.

How To Cook With Fish Sauce

I keep fish sauce in my pantry just as I do soy sauce, catsup, and vinegar.  My favorite way to use it is in a recipe for a slaw dressing I learned from Fish Without A Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore.  This dressing is a simple mix of fish sauce, canola oil, fresh lime juice, rice vinegar, and finely chopped little bits of garlic and jalapeño or Thai chile peppers.  

A quick shake in a jar, this dressing can transform a grocery-bought bag of cabbage and carrot slaw mix into one of the best sides you'll ever serve with any fish or shellfish.  I make up a jar of it that will dress three or four bags of the slaw mix -- the dressing keeps in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks and I can pick up a bag of the slaw mix at the same time I buy my fish for dinner which lets me get supper on the table in half an hour without it tasting that way.  See the link to the recipe.

Another simple way to use fish sauce is in a jalapeño dipping sauce that can be used with roast chicken, spring rolls, or pan seared shrimp.

4 tablespoons fish sauce
2 medium or 1 large jalapeño pepper

  1. Remove the stem and tip from the jalapeño.  Using a sharp knife, cut the jalapeño into very thin slices.  If you want to reduce the amount of heat, remove and discard the seeds.
  2. Place the fish sauce and thin jalapeño slices into a small bowl.  Let sit for a few minutes.  
  3. Use as a dipping sauce or to drizzle over pieces of cooked chicken, seafood, or fried rice.



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