I had a roommate who was famous for her fried rice. Her secret? Fish sauce. While most might think the trick to Asian food is soy sauce, it's not. It's all about the fish sauce. Unless you're used to preparing a mess of Asian food at home, odds are you've probably never even purchased a bottle of the stuff. At first glance, it can be intimidating. Then you open the bottle and get a whiff of the pungent smell. No thanks. But then, you splash some on your food, and instantly wonder where this smelly fermented fish sauce has been all these years.
Fish sauce is umami in a bottle, or you can consider it the Worcestershire sauce of Southeast Asian cuisine. It's made out of a mixture of fermented fish and salt. Typically, that fish being anchovies, however sometimes other fish can be used. And like any good sauce, there are different varieties. Barrel-aged, Thai, and Vietnamese are some of the more commonly recognized.
While each brand and style does the sauce slightly different, the main distinctive flavor factor you will notice is the salt level. From low to high, fish sauces have a potency level kind of like hot sauce, except instead of Scoville units, it's sodium. While very prevalent in Thai food, fish sauce is still one of the generally untouched additions to home recipes.
In Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, fish sauce is no secret. In fact, it's in practically everything, making it a rightful secret ingredient. Dipping sauces, curries, pho, ramen, stir-fry, you name it, it's in it. Fish sauce adds a salty umami, savory flavor making your food taste more complex than without. It's truly what makes the food.
This fishy condiment isn't only for Southeast Asian cuisine however, though it is a staple of Thai cooking in particular. It has a versatile nature that chefs have begun to embrace. Barbecue, grilled chicken, sautéed vegetables, breakfast, pasta sauce, salad dressings, and even Bloody Marys can taste better with a splash of the sauce.
A word to the wise: home cooks, splash with care. The salt level of fish sauce can easily overpower your dish if you use too much, and especially if you add in sea salt. I've found that I salt my food after the fish sauce - if it even needs it at all. A good taste test will tell you everything you need to know instantly.
It may be hard to choose a good fish sauce from the different brands out there, but that's why you should pick up a bottle of Red Boat 40°N. It's a "100 percent all-natural first-press, extra-virgin" Vietnamese fish sauce that contains no MSG or preservatives. It comes from the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc where it is made with anchovies and salt in the fermentation process.
However, it may be hard to find, especially if you don't have a good Asian market around. In that case, pick up a bottle of Thai Kitchen Premium Fish Sauce. It's one of the most popular brands you'll find at your regular grocery store, and along with Red Boat 40°N it's recommended by America's Test Kitchen.
And if you're feeling ambitious, you can make your own fish sauce right at home. In a mason jar, let the fish pieces sit with the muddled garlic, lemon, black peppercorns, bay leaves and sea salt. Pour over water and sauerkraut brine and forget about the mixture for about 4 weeks. Strain the mixture and there you have it! This recipe from Nourishing Joy takes some time to ferment but seriously packs in the umami flavor. Up for the challenge? Get the recipe here.
If you're ready to experiment and cook up something fishy, here are five recipes to get you started on the right path.
1. Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Thai Sauce
The options for brussels sprouts are probably more versatile than you may think. Like these Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Thai Sauce. If you're new to fish sauce, this is a simple recipe to begin with.
Tasty Brussels sprouts are cooked in oil until crisp, then are tossed in fresh lime juice, chili pepper, garlic, and fish sauce blend for a bang. For so many reasons, you need to try this. And fish sauce only seals the deal.
2. Fish Sauce Chicken Wings
We all love Frank's Red Hot on chicken wings, but tonight, try something new. Fish Sauce Chicken Wings are a mouthwatering blend of umami, savory, and spicy. Using a Thai roasted chili paste, garlic, and Vietnamese fish sauce, the chicken wings are coated and left to marinate for four hours.
After a flour coating, they're then cooked in a wok until they come out a crispy brown that you'll be dying to sink your teeth into.
3. Spring Roll Bowls with Sweet Garlic Lime Sauce
This Spring Roll Bowl recipe has become a staple in my house. As a lover of fresh springs rolls, I'm naturally inclined to favor a deconstructed spring roll in a bowl, and with good reason. The fresh veggies are smothered in a tangy, citrusy, salty sauce of rice vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, oil, and lime. And while all the flavors meld beautifully, if it weren't for the fish sauce, this dish would leave something desired.
If you're making this dish, I like to add some sesame oil to the sauce. It imparts a rich flavor that tastes smashing with the other ingredients.
4. Bahn Mi Pizza
Who can say no to pizza? Tonight, ditch the pepperoni and go Bánh mì style. Subbing the traditional tomato sauce for a soy-fish sauce blend, and then topping with the usual Bánh mì fixings of fresh carrot, radish, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, and a Sriracha mayo, you may have just discovered what fish sauce is all about.
Did we mention this also has a baked egg on top? Yeah, this Bánh Mì Pizza went there.
5. Drunken Noodles
What's the secret to drunken noodles? It's all in the fish sauce. Without it, and drunken noodles would taste, well, sober. A classic Thai dish also known as Pad Kee Mao, drunken noodles consist of wide rice noodles, vegetables, and your protein of choice all covered in a spicy, savory sauce.
To make this Drunken Noodle recipe, you'll need your trusty fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and some brown sugar to sweeten. Once that's all tossed in the noodles with all your other ingredients, you'll understand why fish sauce is a must.
Oh, and if you don't eat chicken, be sure to sub in either fish, tofu, or extra veggies for a smashing Thai meal.
Ready to order a bottle of fish sauce? Here are two brands we recommend.
This post was originally published on September 11, 2018.