If you’re a fan of Thai, Vietnamese, or Indonesian cuisine, then you’ve probably sampled fish sauce. The salty, savory ingredient is used to add umami to dozens of popular dishes, such as pad thai, but can also be used to marinate meats, dress vegetables or punch up the flavor in soups or stews. It can even serve as a base to salad dressings and homemade condiments. But for those who aren’t familiar with the ingredient, the name might seem off-putting. When one realizes that fish sauce is comparable to more familiar condiments — soy sauce and Worcestershire, for example — the flavor packed liquid becomes a far more approachable addition to your pantry.
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Among savory ingredients and condiments, fish sauce is probably one of the most aptly named. The dark liquid is made by packing fish and shellfish varieties with a high oil content — like mackerel, shrimp, and perhaps most commonly, anchovies — into a container filled with salt. Over time, the salt ferments the fish until it produces a salty, savory liquid that’s black or brown in color. Fish sauce is generally fermented for at least two years before it is packaged and distributed to consumers, but it can be left to ferment for as long as desired. It can even be made at home, for those who are interested in getting into meat fermentation.
Much like other umami-filled condiments, fish sauce is most often used as a base in more complex dressing and dips. For example, you could add sugar, garlic, chili garlic paste, and lime juice to make this seasoned fish sauce. Or, you could add ginger and a couple of other household ingredients to make this fantastic ginger fish sauce. Some even claim it’s the key to making incredible tomato soup or marinara sauce. Since fish sauce is so strong, a little tends to go a long way, so the possibilities are truly endless.
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When picking out a fish sauce at your local grocery store or Asian market, be sure to look for a variety that’s high in protein. Fish releases glutamate — an amino acid used to make protein — when it’s fermented, so any fish sauce that has low protein content likely hasn’t been left to ferment for long enough, or didn’t use enough fish in the initial process.Those sauces will mostly taste too fishy, or too salty, and therefore fail to deliver the balanced savory punch you’re looking for.
Fish sauce may initially seem strange to Western eaters, but the truth is, it’s not very different from the condiments that we already know. Once you’ve become familiar with it, it becomes a powerful tool that you’ll find yourself reaching for whenever you’re making soups, stews, or simply need to add a bit more depth to your packaged ramen.