Few ingredients bring as much quick, show-stopping flavor to a dish as fish sauce does. It’s sweet, salty, fishy, and enjoyableky unexpectedly, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what is fish sauce? We’ve all had it sooner or later or another whether or not we knew it or not—pad thai, anyone?—but that doesn’t mean we know what’s in it.

Well…fish, actually. Fish sauce lives up to the name. It does, as advertised, derive most of its flavor from fish, but you do not just smack a fish around and out plops a bottle of fish sauce. The real flavor comes from the process of fermenting fish for anywhere from a pair months to a couple years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in giant barrels to hang out. The natural bacterias begin to break down the fish, producing a briny, fishy, savory liquid. That, pals, is fish sauce.

Fermentation has been used for thousands of years to develop flavor in anything from fish to meat to beans to vegetables. Many cultures use or have used a fermented fish sauce, from the Greeks to the Chinese, however we most commonly associate it with Southeast Asian cooking. It provides one of many driving flavors in dishes like larb, Vietnamese marinated meats, green papaya salad, and stir-fries, as well as pad thai.

We love the flavour of fish sauce for its umami, the earthy, savory flavor subject that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce style so complex and crave-able. There’s a distinct, pungent fishiness to the sauce, sure, however that taste is flanked by a salty, briny, caramel-y sweetness. It’s an ingredient that provides you a little bit of everything when thrown into marinades, stir-fries, and salad dressings, and it’s just as useful in non-Asian cooking too. A little fish sauce can enhance salty, savory flavor in sautéed greens, pastas, roast chicken, or broths. Generally speaking, we’re down to experiment with a dash of fish sauce every time we would otherwise add salt. It’s aggressively flavorful though, so you’ll want to add just a bit at a time and style as you go. A little goes an extended way.

When it comes to purchasing fish sauce, there are hundreds of types out there, and in case you head to an Asian market you’ll be able to find more regionally-particular brands and variations.

Like most things, fish sauce takes a minute to get to know, and once you know what fish sauce is you are ready to get that relationship going. Hang around with it. Invite it to dinner. Experiment with totally different proteins and vegetables. And crack a beer while you’re at it. Your fish sauce associateship is blossoming. What a stupendous time to be alive.

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