Ingredient Spotlight: Fish Sauce

Called nam pla in Thailand and nuoc mam in Vietnam, fish sauce is an essential seasoning ingredient in many Southeast Asian dishes. And what a seasoning it is! This reddish-brown liquid sauce smells as pungent as a fishing dock, and packs a powerful savory punch. Do you have a bottle in your pantry?Fish sauce is made from salted, fermented fish. Anchovies are typical, but other kinds of seafood are sometimes used. The exact method and recipe can differ from region to region and country to country depending on what is traditional or readily available.

Counter-intuitively, the longer the fish are fermented, the less fishy tasting the resulting sauce. Cheap, quickly fermented fish sauces will have a fairly strong fish flavor while ones that have been aged for a year or more develop an almost nutty flavor similar to parmesan cheese. (Both fish sauce and parmesan are high in glutamates, giving them a similar umami flavor.)

Fish sauce is used almost like salt or soy sauce in many dishes. It is used to season stir-fries, curries, and noodle dishes. It adds depth to marinades, and makes a great dipping sauce when mixed with garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, and sugar. Although it smells incredibly strong, fish sauce blends well with other flavors in these dishes, enhancing and bringing them together without overwhelming them.

Look for fish sauce at Asian grocery stores or in the international foods aisles of chain grocery stores. If you’re new to fish sauces, we recommend starting with a basic Thai nam pla and then branching out into fish sauces from other regions.

Try out fish sauce in these recipes:

Vegetable and Mint Summer Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce
Bun Chay - Vietnamese Noodle Salad
Som Tam - Green Papaya Salad

Where do you most use fish sauce in your cooking?

Related: Ethnic Markets: How to Identify Unfamiliar Foods

(Image: Emma Christensen)

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