This briny, flavorful condiment can make almost any dish taste better. Here, we explore what makes this beloved ingredient so special.

By Rebecca Morris
July 01, 2020
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John Lawton

Bold, briny, and bursting with umami flavor, fish sauce is a beloved ingredient in many Asian countries. Considered particularly essential in Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino kitchens, fish sauce is employed so frequently in cooking that it is akin to how salt and pepper are used in Western cuisines. Open up a bottle that contains the thin, dark-amber liquid, and you'll learn quickly that fish sauce pulls no punches when it comes to aroma—it's pungent, with a salty, slightly sweet, and intensely fishy flavor to match the nose. And while fish sauce is powerfully scented at full concentration, it blends seamlessly into the background of all kinds of dishes when used in small amounts.

For a condiment that brings so much complexity to the table, the way it is made is actually quite simple: Fish, typically anchovies, are packed into large vats with salt and left to ferment until they essentially liquify, a process that usually takes around nine months but can take up to a year. That liquid is then strained—and, in some cases, left to age even longer—before being bottled. You may be wondering what keeps the fish from becoming rotten or dangerous to eat. The key word is fermentation, an ancient preserving method that uses salt to halt the harmful bacteria that would normally cause the food to spoil. While the salt is keeping the bad bacteria out, the beneficial bacteria is let loose to mingle. It's the fermentation process that gives fish sauce its signature flavor that can be described as deeply savory and umami.

Shopping for and Storing Fish Sauce

You can typically find at least one brand of fish sauce at major supermarkets, but for the best selection, visit your local Asian grocer instead. These retailers will have an array of different styles, grades, and countries of origin (which might labeled "nam pla" if Thai or "nuoc mam" if Vietnamese). When purchasing, keep in mind that fish sauce will keep indefinitely and a little will go a long way in your cooking. Store it in a cool dark place, like the pantry, and away from any hot areas in your kitchen, like directly above the stove. You should avoid storing fish sauce in the fridge because cold temperatures will cause the salt to crystallize over time.

If you or someone you are cooking for has a shellfish allergy, avoid fish sauce unless the label states that it is free of shellfish—it is common in production to include krill and shrimp to the anchovy mixture for flavor and color—or shop for a vegan version, which you can generally find online ($4.49, amazon.com) or at a health food store. While most fish sauce is naturally gluten-free, there are a few brands that add hydrolyzed wheat protein, a flavor enhancer similar to MSG. Though a study in 2011 has shown that this ingredient is safe for those with celiac disease, most gluten-free resources recommend seeking out brands that keep their ingredient lists to just fish and salt if you are sensitive.

How to Cook with Fish Sauce

For the most part, recipes that use fish sauce are rooted in Southeast Asian cuisines, like the tangy stir-fried rice noodle dish pad Thai, Laotian larb, a spicy meat salad typically eaten over rice or in lettuce cups, or nuoc cham, the sweet-tart Vietnamese sauce that can accompany a platter of summer rolls for dipping, or tossed with sliced mango for a fresh side salad.

Once you learn how to harness the flavor-boosting powers of fish sauce, you'll want to use it to level-up everything from quick weeknight stir-fries and curries to bright and vibrant salad dressings, and even snack-worthy roasted peanuts. And you'll quickly see that fish sauce is a great flavor booster for meats; use it as part of a sweet-sticky glaze for chicken wings or in a tableside sauce for grilled beef.

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