Fish sauce, for Vietnamese it’s like a golden elixir. At the same time there’s this huge misconception about fish sauce, it being “fishy”. Not that it doesn’t smell fishy — because it’s made of fish — but in cooking, it functions more like salt, while bringing a deep, savoury, umami punch to whatever you use it for. Its use is incredibly versatile where a little bit goes a long way. For us, we can’t imagine a world of cooking without fish sauce.
But what even is this godly, funky, flavourful liquid and how do you use it? More on this below!
WHAT IS FISH SAUCE?
To put simply, it is a Southeast Asian condiment made from salted fish, usually small fish like anchovies. The most common fish sauce that you’ll see are Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) and Thai fish sauce (nam pla). However you will find a variety of versions all over the world like from Taiwan, the Philippines (patis), Cambodia (tuk trey), Malaysia (budu), Japan (shottsuru), Korea (aekjeot).
Fish sauce is a true staple in Southeast Asian and East Asian cuisine but can be found used all over the world.
Typically, isn’t made at home, It is often sold in glass bottles with a pour spout, so it’s easy to use during cooking. We store it on our counter or pantry, at room temperature, because I use it very regularly. If you want you can refrigerate it but usually once opened a bottle stays well for a few months to a year.
HOW IS IT MADE?
Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish (anchovies are the most common, but some brands contain trace amounts of by-catch like squid) by combining it with salt and then aged in huge barrels for like 6 months up to a year (or even longer). As the salt draws out the moisture, the anchovies can be preserved so they can ferment for long periods of time without spoiling. During fermentation, microbes grow on the fish, which in turn deepens the flavour. Therefore, fish sauce that are fermented for a longer period have a better flavour. After the fermentation the liquid is extracted — and voilà! The result is that funky, brine-y, deliciously umami liquid. Before being bottled they are sun-dried, then aged a month or so more in ceramic urns or plastic barrels.
HOW TO USE IT IN COOKING?
We would say that a good starting point is to think of it as a salt — it brings an unbeaten umami, slight savouriness and more complexity to your dishes. In Vietnamese cuisine it can be found in the majority of dishes, from marinades, stews and curries and of course the legendary nước mắm or nước chấm — a Vietnamese dipping sauce which can be eaten with literally anything, rice dishes, bún (vermicelli salad),or for dipping gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls) and chả giò/nem rán (fried spring rolls) — yes, you can skip the sweet chilli sauce.
We genuinely put fish sauce in everything while cooking. Some cooks even use it in place of salt. Fish sauce instantly elevates your dish with a distinct dank saltiness flavour and an extra layer of complex flavour. Fish sauce is a really nice addition to recipes that already use seafood, boosting their umami flavour while adding a little kick of fermented funk. Vietnamese often add a dash to soups like the well-known pho to make it more dynamic.
WHAT TO USE IF YOU DON’T HAVE FISH SAUCE?
In our opinion there is no perfect substitute for fish sauce. But if you don’t have fish sauce or the smell is just unbearable for you then you could substitute it for one of the following ingredients:
- msg — which gives a similar hit of umami and saltiness. Bear in mind that the ratio for msg is more sensitive than fish sauce. A 1:4 ratio is a good mnemonic. Let’s say your recipe calls for a tablespoon of fish sauce, you’ll then need ¼ of a tablespoon of MSG. It’ll work in most savoury or salty recipes, like soups, noodle dishes and stir-fries.
- chicken/mushroom bouillon, or vegan versions made with mushroom/seaweed. — This is a plant-based substitute that’ll best work with broth dishes and soups. In order to achieve the same salinity and viscosity as fish sauce, you’ll want to reduce your mushroom stock until most of the water evaporates. You can use the same ratio as fish sauce. You may come across low sodium bouillon, so you may need to add some salt to give it that extra saltiness.
- Vegan fish sauce. This is a great alternative for people who are vegan. For example, go for this variant of Nuoc Mam Chay or the variant of Nature's Charm.