Few ingredients convey as much fast, show-stopping taste to a dish as fish sauce does. It is sweet, salty, fishy, and enjoyableky unexpectedly, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what’s fish sauce? We have all had it at some point or one other whether we knew it or not—pad thai, anybody?—but that does not 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, 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 a few years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in large barrels to hold 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 hundreds of years to develop taste 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 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 flavor of fish sauce for its umami, the earthy, savory flavor discipline that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce taste so complex and crave-able. There’s a definite, pungent fishiness to the sauce, certain, 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 increase salty, savory flavor in sautéed greens, pastas, roast chicken, or broths. Usually speaking, we’re down to experiment with a dash of fish sauce at any time when we might in any other case add salt. It’s aggressively flavorful although, so remember to 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 sorts out there, and when you head to an Asian market you’ll be able to search out more regionally-specific manufacturers and variations.

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

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