Secret Ingredient

Something Fishy

Fish sauce isn't as scary as it smells

by


Few ingredients have chilled me to my core like fish sauce once did. Even the name made my skin tingle. Before I even ever opened a bottle, I was convinced it would smell like liquid death. Hoisin, mirin, soy, plum sauce, ponzu… you could have given me any other Asian condiment out there, but I didn’t think I could have been paid enough to try fish sauce. My fish sauce avoidance was so intense that I needed to almost give myself a twelve-step introduction before even considering a grocery store purchase. I researched, I read, I collected recipes, I even had nightmares of being chased by a bottle of the brown liquid… But eventually I gave in, committed to a recipe that called for fish sauce, held my nose, and gave it
a whirl.

Surprisingly, it actually wasn’t so bad. It still smelled like death, but from what I later gathered, that’s one thing every fish sauce user agrees on (some even said it smelled like wet cat, which my cat-loving friends actually confirmed for me). Smell aside though, using it was completely worth it. I had tasted something within this recipe that I had never experienced before; there was this extra, subtle flavor, meaty yet fishy in a pleasant way. Turns out, with the right amount of knowledge, creativity, and a healthy dose of reality orientation, fish sauce can be more than a nightmare-inducing condiment. It doesn’t have to be that ingredient you’re hesitant to buy “because you’re only going to use a tablespoon of it once and never touch it again” (I tried that excuse, twice). So throw aside your doubts and reservations and take a leap of faith here. Yes, fish sauce will make you feel worldly when your friends come over and see you using it, but it will also allow for a completely new food experience that you’ll wish to enjoy over and over again.

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 lime, 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 wok 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, 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 within the sauce.

Comments

  1. Ken Pidcock says:

    Excellent piece. I’ll now be more willing to use fish sauce in recipes where it is not specifically called for. But…

    (1) Fish sauce doesn’t smell like death; it smells like where life emerges. I’m surely not the only person to notice this. (Wet cat. Is that euphemism?)

    (2) “…the salt used in the fermentation process completely kills any and all bacteria that could ever have hoped to grow.” Well, no. It’s bacteria who are responsible for the fermentation. They’re good guys, though. See (1) also.

  2. JT Hoang says:

    “The difference between a ‘good’ and ‘better’ fish sauce is negligible.”
    I will have to strenuously disagree with this statement. A discerning palate can tell. Many a dish I couldn’t finish because it had the wrong type of fish sauce used, usually too sugary, without that tang, and doesn’t mix well with other ingredients such as lemon juice, whereas with a good fish sauce I can just use it plain with rice. I personally like the Squid brand ($2.50/qt) and the Red Boat brand ($20/qt).
    I don’t own a cat so I wouldn’t know if it smells like wet cat, but next time I have a hankering for fish sauce and find myself without some, I’ll find a wet cat and lick one and tell you how it compares.

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