Few ingredients carry as much fast, show-stopping flavor to a dish as fish sauce does. It is sweet, salty, fishy, and funky abruptly, a prismatic tsunami of flavor. But…what is fish sauce? We’ve all had it at some point or one other whether we knew it or not—pad thai, anyone?—but 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, but you do not just smack a fish around and out plops a bottle of fish sauce. The real flavor comes from the process of fermenting fish for anyplace from a pair months to a couple years. Small fish like anchovies are coated in salt and packed in large 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 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 field that makes things like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce style so advanced and crave-able. There’s a definite, 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 increase salty, savory flavor in sautéed greens, pastas, roast chicken, or broths. Generally speaking, we’re down to experiment with a dash of fish sauce whenever we might otherwise add salt. It’s aggressively flavorful although, so be sure to add just a bit at a time and taste as you go. A little goes an extended way.

When it comes to purchasing fish sauce, there are hundreds of varieties out there, and for those who head to an Asian market you’ll be able to find more regionally-particular 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 around with it. Invite it to dinner. Experiment with completely different proteins and vegetables. And crack a beer while you’re at it. Your fish sauce mateship is blossoming. What a gorgeous time to be alive.

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