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Ingredients: Fish Sauce

How to use fish sauce |

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.

How to use fish sauce |

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 Fish sauce fermentation factory in Vietnamincredible, 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.

Here are a few of SoupAddict’s recipes with fish sauce:

jack burton

Sunday 31st of January 2021

When I was stationed on Okinawa with the Navy, we had an Air Force friend who was married to a Filipina. The AF evacuated all the planes to the Philippines because a major typhoon was headed directly to Okinawa. Gene decided to pick up some bottles of Filipino fish sauce for his wife while he was there for the couple of days. On the flight back the plane hit an air pocket and dropped about 200 feet in a few seconds. Almost like an express down elevator. His eight bottles of fish sauce fell from the overhead space and all broke on the center aisle of the plane. Gene was lucky he made it back alive because his team was ready to chuck him out of the plane without the benefit of a parachute.


Sunday 31st of January 2021

OMG, lol. I actually have a huge bottle of fish sauce to discard, but I keep holding on to it because I don't want to pour it down the drain, and I would feel terrible if it were broken in the garbage truck and the workers had to smell that all shift long.

One open minded cook

Sunday 23rd of August 2020

Hi, as a blogger and journalist your words carry weight. I would consider editing your negative description of what fish sauce smells and tastes like as it comes across as offensive and insensitive to people, like myself, who grew up loving fish sauce. What some might consider off-putting others consider downright delicious. Readers and cooks who visit your blog deserve to come to conclusions about ingredients that might be new to them (especially those from different cultures) on their own without bias - and in this case a put-down. I implore anyone reading this to keep an open mind and a curious palette as food is a wonderful gateway into exploring and appreciating other cultures.


Friday 4th of January 2013

Use fish sauce instead of soy sauce (or in a 1:1 ratio) in your fried rice dishes for a lighter yet tastier result.


Monday 19th of December 2011

Personally, I prefer Philippine fish sauce, as I grew up eating it in all of my dishes. Thai fish sauce versions are okay but in my humble opinion, a bit diluted.

Honestly, I don't find fish sauce disgusting, it is a wonderful condiment to any "Asian" dish.

Lori Pierce

Wednesday 26th of October 2011

I was so happy to read about a fellow foodie who cannot stomach the smell of fish sauce. I love the flavor in very small dosages, however after one bad experience it has stayed in the pantry.... You have intrigued me with the amazon purchase. Thanks for the fantastic post.