What’s the most disgusting thing you can do to improve your cooking?
Add fish sauce.
No, SoupAddict is absolutely not joking.
I don’t joke about the things that go in my soups. Fish sauce: tastes horrible, smells even worse. And is shockingly amazing when added to savory recipes.
Totes true, I pinkie-swearsies.
Okay, I’ll bite: what is it?
First, don’t run screaming. Seriously. Because you’re gonna want to. Far and fast. But then you’d miss out.
Take a deep breath … hold on to your tummies … here we go: Fish sauce is an Asian condiment made of fermented fish (often anchovies or shell fish) that adds an incredible, complex saltiness that no other seasoning can come close to matching.
Made in huge factories in Vietnam and Thailand, fish, water and salt (and sometimes sugar) are added to huge wooden barrels and left to brew for one year. The liquid given off by the fish during this fermentation process creates a strong, salty, deeply-flavored sauce. Spigots at the bottom of each barrel are used to drain off (or press) the liquid for final processing and bottling. Salty sea water is then recirculated back into the barrels for further fermentation.
See? That wasn’t so bad, was it? Yes? No?
How to buy fish sauce
Fish sauce is available in many grocery stores, usually found in the international/Asian aisle, and also — of course — in Asian markets.
The most coveted concoction comes from the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, but it’s hard to come by in the States (I purchased the Vietnamese brand in the photo above (right) from Amazon). You’re more likely to find brands from Thailand in your local shop, like the Thai Kitchen brand (above, left). But I’ve noticed recently that as hard-to-come-by ingredients become more and more readily available to foodies, the selection of fish sauce has improved considerably.
Read the labels
If you have a choice among several brands, make sure you read the labels, and look for these terms:
Nuoc mam – fish sauce of Vietnamese origin.
Phu Quoc – Vietnamese island famous for its exceptionally flavorful fish sauce.
Nam pla – fish sauce of Thai origin.
nhi – means “first pressing” (in terms of fish sauce — nuoc mam nhi) and indicates that it is from the first extraction (mentioned above) of the fermented sauce. It’s the most flavorful, and, oddly, the least icky-fishy-pungent (and the most expensive, although not terribly more so).
How to use fish sauce
Fish sauce has gained considerable ground in global cuisine and is a favorite ingredient among modern chefs. It honest-to-goodness does not add a fishy flavor, rather, it’s a salty umami that adds an extra savory muah! to your dish.
Kind of like espresso does to chocolate: when you add espresso powder to anything chocolate (frostings, cookie dough, ganache), you don’t taste coffee, just a richer chocolate.
Use fish sauce in soups, stews, sauces, dipping sauces and meat marinades for beef, chicken and pork. Add at the same time you would the first sprinkling of salt (often, fish sauce can completely replace any salt added to a recipe, but as you gain experience with fish sauce, you’ll be the best judge). In Asian cooking, it is often used in place of or addition to soy sauce.
Start with one or two teaspoons, mix well into your dish, and taste. I usually go right for a full tablespoon in soups and stews (for quantities of four or more servings). Don’t be disturbed if at first things smell “off.” It’s okay — the fish sauce will perfectly blend into the rest of the dish with a little cooking time.
But whatever you, don’t smell the bottle. Pour quickly and recap. This is one time when the smell of the raw ingredient is absolutely no indication of its flavor contribution.
Trust SoupAddict on this one. Unless you have a thing for strong, funky odors. And even then, don’t say you weren’t warned.