Few ingredients bring as much speedy, show-stopping flavor to a dish as fish sauce does. It’s candy, salty, fishy, and funky unexpectedly, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what’s fish sauce? We’ve all had it at some point or another whether or not we knew it or not—pad thai, anybody?—however that doesn’t imply 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 taste 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 wherever from a couple months to a few years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in giant barrels to hold out. The natural bacterias start to break down the fish, producing a briny, fishy, savory liquid. That, friends, 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, however 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 flavor area that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce taste so advanced and crave-able. There’s a distinct, pungent fishiness to the sauce, positive, however that flavor 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 enhance salty, savory flavor in sautéed greens, pastas, roast chicken, or broths. Generally speaking, we’re down to experiment with a dash of fish sauce every time we would otherwise add salt. It’s aggressively flavorful though, so be sure you add just a bit at a time and style as you go. A little goes an extended way.
When it comes to buying fish sauce, there are hundreds of varieties on the market, and for those who 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 a lovely time to be alive.
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