Few ingredients carry as much immediate, show-stopping taste to a dish as fish sauce does. It is candy, salty, fishy, and funky abruptly, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what is fish sauce? We have all had it at some point or another whether or not we knew it or not—pad thai, anyone?—however that doesn’t mean we know what’s in it.

Well…fish, actually. Fish sauce lives as much as the name. It does, as advertised, derive most of its flavor from fish, however you do not just smack a fish around and out plops a bottle of fish sauce. The real taste comes from the process of fermenting fish for anyplace from a pair months to some years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in massive barrels to hold out. The natural bacterias start to break down the fish, producing a briny, fishy, savory liquid. That, pals, 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 associate it with Southeast Asian cooking. It provides one of many driving flavors in dishes like larb, Vietnamese marinated meats, green papaya salad, and stir-fries, as well as pad thai.

We love the flavor of fish sauce for its umami, the earthy, savory taste discipline that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce taste so complicated and crave-able. There’s a distinct, pungent fishiness to the sauce, certain, but that taste is flanked by a salty, briny, caramel-y sweetness. It’s an ingredient that offers 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 increase salty, savory flavor in sautéed greens, pastas, roast chicken, or broths. Typically speaking, we’re down to experiment with a dash of fish sauce at any time when we’d in any other case add salt. It’s aggressively flavorful although, so be sure to add just a bit at a time and style as you go. A little goes a long way.

When it comes to purchasing fish sauce, there are hundreds of varieties on the market, and should you head to an Asian market you’ll be able to find 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 totally different proteins and vegetables. And crack a beer while you’re at it. Your fish sauce palship is blossoming. What a stupendous time to be alive.

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