Few ingredients convey as a lot rapid, show-stopping flavor to a dish as fish sauce does. It’s sweet, salty, fishy, and funky all at once, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what’s fish sauce? We have all had it at some point or one other whether or not we knew it or not—pad thai, anyone?—but that does not imply we know what’s in it.

Well…fish, actually. Fish sauce lives up to the name. It does, as advertised, derive most of its taste from fish, but you don’t just smack a fish around and out plops a bottle of fish sauce. The real flavor comes from the process of fermenting fish for anywhere from a pair months to some years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in giant barrels to hang out. The natural bacterias start to break down the fish, producing a briny, fishy, savory liquid. That, mates, is fish sauce.

Fermentation has been used for thousands of years to develop flavor in anything from fish to meat to beans to vegetables. Many cultures use or have used a fermented fish sauce, from the Greeks to the Chinese, but we most commonly affiliate it with Southeast Asian cooking. It provides one of the driving flavors in dishes like larb, Vietnamese marinated meats, green papaya salad, and stir-fries, as well as pad thai.

We love the flavour of fish sauce for its umami, the earthy, savory taste area that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce style so complicated and crave-able. There’s a distinct, pungent fishiness to the sauce, positive, but that flavor is flanked by a salty, briny, caramel-y sweetness. It’s an ingredient that provides you a little bit of everything when thrown into marinades, stir-fries, and salad dressings, and it’s just as helpful in non-Asian cooking too. A little fish sauce can boost salty, savory flavor in sautéed greens, pastas, roast chicken, or broths. Usually speaking, we’re down to experiment with a dash of fish sauce every time we’d otherwise add salt. It’s aggressively flavorful although, so make sure to add just a bit at a time and taste as you go. A little goes a long way.

When it comes to buying fish sauce, there are hundreds of varieties out there, and should you head to an Asian market you’ll be able to search out more regionally-particular brands and variations.

Like most things, fish sauce takes a minute to get to know, and when you know what fish sauce is you are ready to get that relationship going. Hang around with it. Invite it to dinner. Experiment with different proteins and vegetables. And crack a beer while you’re at it. Your fish sauce associateship is blossoming. What an exquisite time to be alive.

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