Are you sure you want to know? Cause we’ll tell you. Fish sauce in its purest form is the liquid extracted from fish, likely anchovies, while they’re being fermented or salted. Its use is rampant all over Asia, most notably in Thailand and Vietnam. Ancient Romans revered the stuff — everyone, rich and poor, doused their food with varying qualities and strengths of fish sauce, the rarest of which were as sought after as caviar.
WHAT IS IT?
Fish sauce is composed of three ingredients: whole fish, salt, and water. These three main ingredients are placed into barrels and sit for 12-18 months. The less time it spends fermenting, the fishier the taste. The longer it spends, the nuttier it gets. While your first thought might be “Holy bacteria, Batman!” the salt used in the fermentation process completely kills any and all bacteria that could ever have hoped to grow. Sometimes, companies add sugar to help calm the pungency of the sauce, and some Western producers will also add hydrolyzed wheat protein or sodium benzoate (similar to MSG) to replace the traditional slow fermentation process, though I’ve yet to find the latter in any bottle of fish sauce I’ve come across.
WHO MAKES IT?
It probably comes as no surprise that fish sauce is most commonly related to (and most used in) Thai and Asian cuisines. Who is producing the fish sauce (i.e., which region) affects its composition as well; Southeast Asian producers use anchovies for their fish sauce, as do Korean and our “Western” producers. Japanese producers use the more expensive sand lance fish and may also use squid and other fish, creating very specific blends of fish sauces that can only be used with certain dishes. Don’t get too caught up in Asian cuisine though – archaeologists and scientists have found evidence that ancient Romans produced fish sauce in the Mediterranean, where their product was called garum.
WHERE DO I GET IT?
Don’t knock a standard grocery store bottle – it still offers everything a fish sauce should, and can take the emotional beating of being left in your cupboard for months on end.
If you’d like to travel to an Asian market to complete your experience of buying fish sauce for the first time, go right ahead, but it certainly isn’t necessary. You can find fish sauce right down the Asian foods aisle of your local grocery store. Does buying it at a grocery store mean anything different than buying it at a specialty market or culinary store? At specialty stores and markets, you might find multiple brands of fish sauce, and you have a smaller chance of finding a sauce that deviates from the ingredient trinity. Most regular grocery stores have only one brand sitting on their shelves. The darker the fish sauce is, the stronger the flavor, so at specialty stores, you may also find brands with varying shades of brown based on potency. When it comes to buying fish sauce, many culinary resources, in general, tend to say it doesn’t really matter where you buy it, because when it comes to taste, the difference between a “good” and “better” sauce is negligible. Internet-based home cooks agree, saying not to knock a standard grocery store bottle because it still offers everything a fish sauce should and can take the emotional beating of being left in your cupboard for months on end.
WHEN DO I USE IT?
Obviously, fish sauce can be used whenever a recipe calls for it, but another general consensus says you can incorporate it into any recipe that requires Worcestershire sauce (using the same amount), like in steak marinades, stews, and meatloaf mixes. You can also substitute soy sauce for fish sauce if you’re feeling hesitant (again, in the same amount) but there is a caveat to substituting fish sauce for soy in equal amounts due to fish sauce’s pungency. The rule of thumb seems to be “a little goes a long way,” and to always start with less if you’re wary. You can also feel safe adding fish sauce to a recipe that also requires time because the lime helps to tame fishiness. More Americanized uses for fish sauce include its use in Bloody Marys and marinades, to season hamburger meat, in bouillabaisses, and as a few confess, as their “special something” in guacamole. You can also swap in fish sauce for any recipe that calls for anchovy (starting with a small amount first). Try fish sauce in a Caesar dressing by starting with ¼ cup of mayonnaise and whisking in 1 tablespoon of EVOO, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, a small minced garlic clove, and 1 teaspoon of fish sauce, finishing with a couple of healthy grinds of fresh black pepper.
WHY SHOULD I USE IT?
Fish sauce’s usefulness extends beyond Asian cuisine, past the horizon, and then some. You don’t have to dust off your work in order to use it. Fish sauce is synonymous with “umami,” the fifth taste element, and is known for adding an incredible depth of flavor to practically any recipe, where appropriate (don’t add it to ice cream and then blame me for anything gross). Professional chefs and kitchens laud fish sauce as their secret ingredient in many recipes. Another plus is that it pretty much lasts forever and essentially can’t go bad because of the amount of salt used in fermentation. To back that up, there is no legal requirement for producers to list an expiration date on fish sauce, although many companies do to make consumers feel better. Heading back to general consensus, a bottle should last you at least two years and the Association for Science Cooperation in Asia cites a shelf life of 5 years. As with any other food or condiment though, the fish sauce should never be used if it’s moldy or has turned cloudy (signs of third-party spoilage). Keep it in a cool, dark, temperature-stable environment that isn’t your refrigerator, which can lead to the crystallization of the salt in the sauce.