There were many times when the mention of fish sauce during a dinner conversation at an Asian restaurant with non-Asian friends elicited disgust —that is if the person I was walking to had heard of its existence. Some appreciated its role in Southeast Asian food; others were repulsed by the thought of it. Even though I know it’s due to ignorance —the ones that were disgusted had heard it for the first time, it sill miffed me. I grew up with it. It isn’t something strange, it’s familiar, and infuses Asian dishes with so much flavour if used properly.
Fish sauce is not just a characteristic of Asian cuisine. Ancient Rome had a similar seasoning called garum —a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in the cuisines of ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. The Japanese have shottsuru —a Japanese fish sauce made from the hatahata fish. So I am always surprised when people are flabbergasted by the thought of fish sauce.
In recent years, however, the tide has begun to turn as more people became interested in Asian food, and Asian restaurants and food trucks are popping up everywhere. If you want to know the preparation process behind fish sauce, here’s an interesting article on how fish sauce is made by Lisa Pepin, as she visits a fish sauce maker in Sa Chau, Vietnam:
How Fish Sauce Are Made:
Vu Van Hai makes fish sauce in the yard of his house. Urns of finished sauce line up next to vats of aging fish, baskets for straining the liquid out of the fish, and ceramic bowls for separating out the good stuff. When it comes to fish sauce, it doesn’t get any more authentic than this.
Mr. Hai’s setup is common in Sa Chau, Vietnam. The small coastal town has a deep history of making fish sauce. I talked to the experts in Sa Chau to find out how they make their sauce, from fish to bottle, and all the mysterious steps in between.
Fish sauce has two ingredients: fish and salt. The first and most important step is to choose the fish. Some makers go to the market to buy fish themselves, while others use an expert buyer to select the best quality fish. The fish should be fresh, clean, and about the same size. The best fish sauce is made of one type of fish, though some makers mix types depending on what’s freshly caught (and to cut costs). Thirty to forty tons of fish yields about 10,000 liters of fish sauce.
Using Fish Sauce
I had a conversation once with a friend about the different brands of fish sauce, and he mentioned to me, “The difference between a ‘good’ and ‘better’ fish sauce is minuscule.” I will politely disagree with this statement. A discerning palate can tell. Once upon a time, many a dish wasn’t finished because it had the wrong type of fish sauce used, usually too sugary, without that umami taste, and did not mix well with other ingredients, namely lime. A good fish sauce can be eaten plainly with rice, just like a good soy sauce. So, no, the difference is not minuscule. Not all fish sauce has the same effect on your food, so take care when cooking with a new brand for the first time. I personally like the Squid brand, or if I feel like splurging, the Red Boat brand. Sometimes, when the need to try a new brand emerges, I would look at the sodium count per serving on the fish sauce label. You will notice that the saltiness varies from brand to brand. The sugar content is important too, you don’t want a sweet fish sauce, but if a fish sauce has a hint of sweetness, it is easier to work with —look for that pleasant amount of savoury-sweet finish.
Fish sauce and salt are not equivalent. Salt is salt, but fish sauce is a source of savoriness and can overpower certain ingredients. In Cambodian cooking, we usually use fish sauce with salt, lime, and perhaps with cane sugar to create umami depth.
Many Cambodian recipes call for fish sauce, so for our household, we often finish it within a month or less. However, if you rarely use fish sauce, refrigerate the bottle. Otherwise, store it in a cool, dark spot in the cupboard. You can usually tell when fish sauce goes bad. Its when lots of crystals form, and it smells more awful than usual. In which case, throw it out.
Fish sauce isn’t just for Asian fare. Keep it aside in a small bottle on the kitchen table and experiment by adding small amounts to savoury dishes when you want a deeper flavour. It works wonders in all kinds of soup, and tomato-based pasta sauces. Contrary to its name, fish sauce doesn’t add fishy flavour to food, but rather a subtle layer of umami depth.
With all this fish talk, I’m actually craving fish. If you are too, try this delicious healthy fish recipe.