Few ingredients carry as much instant, show-stopping flavor to a dish as fish sauce does. It is sweet, salty, fishy, and enjoyableky suddenly, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what’s fish sauce? We have all had it in some unspecified time in the future or one other whether or not we knew it or not—pad thai, anyone?—but that does not 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 taste 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 some years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in large barrels to hold out. The natural bacterias start to break down the fish, producing a briny, fishy, savory liquid. That, pals, is fish sauce.
Fermentation has been used for 1000’s of years to develop taste 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 the 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 area that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce taste so complicated and crave-able. There’s a definite, pungent fishiness to the sauce, certain, 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 increase salty, savory taste 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 a long way.
When it comes to buying fish sauce, there are hundreds of varieties out there, and if you head to an Asian market you’ll be able to seek out more regionally-specific brands and variations.
Like most things, fish sauce takes a minute to get to know, and when you know what fish sauce is you’re ready to get that relationship going. Hang out with it. Invite it to dinner. Experiment with completely different proteins and vegetables. And crack a beer while you’re at it. Your fish sauce friendship is blossoming. What an exquisite time to be alive.
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