Every culinary tradition has its secret ingredient, and in many Southeast Asian cuisines, that secret is often fish sauce. This strong and intense sauce adds a powerful salty, sweet, umami flavour with a slightly fishy taste.
Whether you're new to Southeast Asian cooking or looking to deepen your culinary expertise, understanding fish sauce is key. This guide will explore what fish sauce is, its rich history, how it's made, and how best to use it in your cooking.
What is fish sauce?
Fish sauce is a condiment made from small fish such as anchovies or krill that's been fermented with salt. As one of the iconic Asian sauces, fish sauce is used extensively in many Asian cuisines, especially throughout Southeast Asia. Fish sauce is well known for its rich, umami flavour, acting as a salt substitute and flavour enhancer in countless dishes.
Fish sauce typically has a clear, amber-to-reddish brown appearance. Although it can be off-putting at first, fish sauce has a distinctive, strong odour which blends into food during cooking, becoming less pronounced.
What's in fish sauce and how's it made?
The traditional process of making fish sauce involves just two primary ingredients: fish and salt. Small fish such as anchovies or krill are layered with salt and left to ferment in large barrels, typically for anyone between 6 months to a couple of years.
The salt extracts the liquid from the fish, creating a briny, flavourful brew. The liquid is then slowly drained from the bottom—the purest, most flavourful part is extracted first and is known as the "first press" or "virgin" fish sauce. This is the highest quality you can find.
Regional variations of fish sauce exist across Asia due to the type of fish used, the specific fermentation process, and additional ingredients like herbs or sugar. For instance, while Vietnamese fish sauce (nước mắm) is known for its clear colour and balanced flavour, Thai fish sauce (nam pla) is often stronger and more aromatic.
Uses for fish sauce in cooking
Fish sauce's unique umami flavour, somewhat akin to the savouriness found in broth or cheese, is irreplaceable in many Asian dishes. It's used in stir-fries, soups, marinades, and dipping sauces, or even drizzled over dishes as a finishing touch. The key is moderation when using fish sauce as - due to its strong and intense flavour - a little goes a long way.
Here are some popular examples of fish sauce in Asian cooking.
Thai Papaya Salad (Som Tum)
This classic Thai salad which is one of our favourites, features green papaya, chillies, tomatoes, and green beans, all pounded in a mortar with a zesty, flavourful dressing that includes fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar, offering a perfect blend of salty, sour, sweet, and spicy.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)
These fresh spring rolls are often served with a dipping sauce called "nước chấm" which is made from fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, garlic, and chilli. This complements the fresh ingredients like shrimp, herbs, pork, and rice vermicelli stuffed inside the rice paper.
A national dish of the Philippines, Adobo uses fish sauce as a key seasoning, combined with vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black peppercorns, creating a delightful marinade for chicken or pork that's simmered until tender.
Thai Stir-fried Noodles (Pad Thai)
This globally famous dish uses fish sauce in its tangy, sweet, and savoury sauce, which coats the stir-fried rice noodles and ingredients such as tofu, shrimp, peanuts, scrambled egg, and bean sprouts.
Vietnamese Noodle Soup (Pho)
The broth of this iconic noodle soup is simmered with spices and, in some variations, fish sauce, to deepen its complexity. It's then poured over rice noodles and typically garnished with beef slices, fresh herbs, and lime wedges.
Thai Curry Dishes (e.g., Green, Red, Yellow Curry)
We love incorporating fish sauce to Southeast Asian curries and Thai curries especially, as we find it balances the creaminess of coconut milk and the heat of curry paste. Mix the sauce with meat, seafood, or vegetables and served over steaming jasmine rice.
Laotian Spicy Minced Meat Salad (Larb)
Recognised as the national dish of Laos, Larb uses fish sauce to season minced meat (often pork, chicken, or duck), which is tossed with lime juice, chilli, and fresh herbs like mint and cilantro.
Cambodian Fish Amok
This notable Cambodian curry entrusts fish sauce to enhance its creamy, aromatic curry paste, made with lemongrass, turmeric, and coconut milk, typically used to cook fish and served in banana leaves.
Fish sauce is a crucial ingredient in many recipes for this famous fermented vegetable dish, providing depth and umami to the spicy, tangy flavours of the pickled cabbage or radish.
Indonesian Fried Rice (Nasi Goreng)
Although we primarily prefer kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), you can find some Nasi Goreng recipes incorporate fish sauce for an added layer of savouriness to the stir-fried rice, combined with ingredients like shrimp, chicken, eggs, and chillies.
Each of these dishes showcases the remarkable versatility of fish sauce, enhancing and deepening the flavours, and confirming why it's such a cherished ingredient in kitchens across Asia and beyond.
What's fish sauce called across Asia?
Fish sauce is ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cuisines, yet it takes on different identities across various countries, each with its unique name and nuanced flavour profile.
Here, fish sauce is known as "nước mắm," a staple in countless dishes. Nước mắm ranges from light amber to dark brown and has a clear, crisp aroma with a robust umami flavour. It's used in marinades, dressings, and as a table condiment, often mixed with lemon, sugar, garlic, or chilli.
Referred to as "nam pla," this version of fish sauce is integral to Thai cuisine. Nam pla has a rich, intense flavour, often with a darker colour. It's a key ingredient in papaya salad, stir-fries, curries, and dipping sauces, providing a distinctive tang.
In the Philippines, fish sauce is called "patis." It's typically lighter in both flavour and colour than its Vietnamese and Thai counterparts. Patis is often used to season dishes such as adobo during the cooking process, adding a subtle depth to the local cuisine.
"Jeotgal" is a broader term for salted seafood in Korean cuisine, and while it includes a variety of fermented seafood, the liquid extracted from jeotgal is akin to fish sauce and used similarly in recipes including kimchi. It's often more granular and can include a range of seafood like shrimp, oysters, and fish.
The Japanese version of fish sauce is "shottsuru," made primarily from the fermentation of sandfish. It's commonly used in soups and stews in the Akita Prefecture. Another variant is "ishiru" or "iwanori," used on the Noto Peninsula. These sauces have a milder flavour compared to Southeast Asian varieties.
Known as "yú lù" in Mandarin, the Chinese version of fish sauce is less prominent and differs significantly from its Southeast Asian sisters. It's typically thicker and darker, with a milder fish flavour and a pronounced sweetness, used sparingly in southern Chinese cooking.
Indonesia and Malaysia
In these countries, fish sauce is often referred to as "kecap ikan." However, the more prevalent condiment here is "kecap manis," a sweet soy sauce; and "sambal," a spicy chilli paste. Kecap ikan is less common and used mainly in certain regional dishes.
Called "ngan bya yay," this Burmese fish sauce tends to be more pungent with an intense aroma. It's used as both a cooking ingredient and a condiment, often combined with lime juice and chilli.
Choosing a quality fish sauce
Finding a quality fish sauce is important to ensuring the best flavour for your dishes.
Transparency is a good indicator—the clearer the sauce, the purer and more balanced it tends to be. Additionally, reputable brands list the ingredients, ideally only fish, salt, and water, and possibly a little sugar.
If you are looking for something exceptional, look for bottles labelled "first press" or "virgin" to get the highest quality.
How to store fish sauce?
Once you've brought it home, proper storage is key. Keeping your fish sauce in a cool, dark place will preserve its flavour and prevent oxidation, which can alter its taste over time.
What are the health benefits of fish sauce?
Despite its high sodium content, the nutritional benefits of fish sauce, includes proteins, vitamins, and minerals from the fish. It's also a natural source of iodine, vital for thyroid function. However, as with any high-sodium ingredient, moderation is essential, especially for those monitoring their salt intake.
Fish sauce is more than just a condiment; it's a great flavour enhancer and a core part of various culinary traditions. Its unique taste profile and versatile use make it an invaluable addition to any kitchen. Whether you're whipping up a traditional recipe or experimenting with new flavours, fish sauce offers a world of culinary possibilities waiting to be explored.
Frequently asked questions about fish sauce
What does fish sauce taste like?
It has a robust umami flavour, salty with a slight sweetness.
Can I substitute fish sauce?
While soy sauce or tamari can mimic the saltiness, they lack fish sauce's unique flavour.
Is fish sauce vegan?
Traditional fish sauce isn't, but there are plant-based alternatives available like this one, that mimic the taste profile. See your bottle of fish sauce for more details.
Is fish sauce gluten-free?
Most fish sauces are gluten-free, but it's essential to check the label, especially if it's produced in facilities that also process wheat products. See your bottle of fish sauce for more details.
What's the shelf life of fish sauce?
Unopened, it can last from two to three years. Once opened, it's best used within a year for optimal flavour. See your bottle of fish sauce for more details.
Does fish sauce need to be refrigerated?
It's not necessary but doing so can help preserve the flavour and extend its shelf life. Read instructions on your bottle of fish sauce for more details.