Now that you know all about how fish sauce is traditionally made, how do you pick a bottle from all of the many options at your local Asian market? I talked to Mr. Hai, an expert fish sauce maker in Sa Chau, Vietnam to get his take.
As it turns out, fish sauce is a very personal thing. It can be salty, sweet, fishy, nutty, and stinky, and it’s all about what you prefer. So next time you’re at the Asian market, keep these tips in mind to choose the bottle you take home.
- Read the label. Traditional fish sauce has just two ingredients: salt and fish (the label may say "fish extract"). The best fish sauces are made of just one type of fish, usually anchovy, mackerel, or Sa Chau’s specialty, shad. Fish sauce used to be made the traditional way and sold locally, but now big international companies are adding cost-cutting preservatives and other additives to speed up the process of making fish sauce. Those sauces can still taste, look, and smell good, but if you're looking for true fish sauce, check that label.
- Look at the nitrogen content. This is shown by degrees N. This information might not be available on all bottles, but it's an indicator of the protein content – and therefore, quality — of the fish used in production of the sauce. At least 30°N is standard, but higher is better (and more expensive).
- Look at the color. A lighter, more transparent fish sauce may look nicer, but variations in color in traditional fish sauce can actually tell you about the weather while the sauce was being made. If the sunshine was nice and bright while the salt was being separated from the fish extract, the sauce will be lighter in color. If there wasn’t enough sun and it took more time for the salt to separate from the fish extract, the sauce will be darker and have a deeper, more complex flavor. Cloudy sauce isn't a bad thing; it might just mean the protein content is higher.
- Smell the sauce. You might not be able to do this at the store, but the smell is a simple indicator of how good the sauce is. It should smell fishy, but not stinky. Typically, sauce that’s made by hand is smellier than sauce with additives, although darker sauce that’s been left in the sun longer is less smelly (and has a less fishy taste). Sa Chau is known for its strong-smelling sauce.
- This one’s obvious: taste it. Good fish sauce tastes salty, and then sweet. It should never taste bitter. Rely on taste to tell you about the saltiness rather than the label, since there’s a balance between too much and too little salt. However, some companies looking to speed up the process have to add salt synthetically, since the fish and salt don’t naturally ferment together long enough.
If these tips don’t help you choose, ask a friend! Customers in Vietnam are very loyal to the brand they like, and Mr. Hai says that word of mouth plays a big part in his sales in Sa Chau.
What type of fish sauce do you like?
Thanks, Mr. Hai and translator Thu Duong, for your invaluable help!