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At its most fundamental, fish sauce is what you get when anchovies and salt (and sometimes sugar) are left to ferment in a barrel and then pressed or filtered. Yet each brand is different; some are mellow and earthy, well-suited to stand on their own as a sauce or dressing, or as an umami-rich stand-in for finishing salt. Others, perhaps more pungent or briny, are great to round out the overall flavor of a soup or stew or amp up the savory side of a marinade.
While fish sauce is a fundamental element of many food cultures across Southeast Asia, cooks around the world love the stuff. “I have a friend who was born in the Bronx, total Italian, and one day she said to me, ‘Don’t tell my kids, but I put a little fish sauce in my red sauce.’ So it has a lot of cross-cultural applications, it’s not only for Southeast Asian food,” says Andrea Nguyen, author of Vietnamese Food Any Day.
We spoke with Nguyen and five other cookbook authors and chefs about their favorite brands of fish sauce, and how they like to use each bottle.
Nite Yun, Chef at Nyum Bai in Oakland, CA
If you find yourself striking up conversation with a chef about fish sauce, chances are one brand will cross their lips at one point or another, and that brand is Red Boat. The high-end fish sauce is a pantry essential for a broad swath of devoted chefs in the U.S. Nite Yun is one of those chefs, praising Red Boat for its “clean and rounded umami” character. At Yun’s Cambodian restaurant, Nyum Bai in Oakland, she chooses Red Boat when she wants the flavor to really pop, mixing the fishy elixir with palm sugar syrup for a sweet and salty dressing for papaya salad. For seasoning stock, Yun sticks to Three Crabs, a brand she grew up eating.
Andrea Nguyen, Author of Vietnamese Food Any Day
Andrea Nguyen, who helped us with an in-depth fish sauce buying guide a few years back, considers fish sauce her “secret weapon” when any dish needs a little extra oomph. “If I’m making a pot of pozole and it just doesn’t have quite the umami/savory depth that I’m looking for, instead of reaching for salt I’ll reach for my bottle of fish sauce and give a glug to the pot. It’s even great in guacamole.”
Nguyen admits to having roughly 12 different brands of fish sauce in her pantry. For a brand that fits in the middle of the quality vs. affordability matrix, she recommends Megachef from Vietnam. The blue labeled version, she says, is geared toward Vietnamese cooking, offering a sweeter flavor profile that is “soft and undulating.” The brown-labeled bottle, which can be trickier to find, is Megachef’s formulation for Thai cooking. She describes it as a bit saltier and more intense, noting it can stand up to the “gutsy, earthy flavors of Thai food.”
As far as high-end options go, Nguyen is a fan Son Fish Sauce: “The woman who makes it is 27 years old; she is the 4th generation fish sauce maker,” Andrea notes. “This stuff has a very wonderful fragrance and great flavor. It’s very umami-laden so I actually use like 20 to 30% less than I would with other fish sauces. There’s no sugar in it, and they just take it from the barrel and put it in the bottle. It is very pure and clean.”
Nguyen suggests storing fish sauces in the fridge to keep them fresh—don’t worry, she says, if they start to crystalize a little. They're still perfectly good to use.
Leah Cohen, Chef and Owner at Pig and Khao and Piggyback, New York, NY
Whether she’s preparing khao soi and pork belly adobo in the kitchen of Pig and Khao or cooking at home, Cohen likes to use fish sauce wherever she can. "My husband says that that fish sauce comes out of my pores because I use it so much," Cohen jokes. She turns to it as a source of salinity in her bolognese and when sautéing vegetables, or "any dish you create that requires salt—which is like every dish." Her go-to is Red Boat, but she’s also a frequent user of the more affordable brand Squid when the standalone flavor of the sauce isn’t as important, like when it’s added during active cooking. “A lot of people don’t want to spend 12 dollars on a bottle of fish sauce that they are not sure they’ll use often,” she says. “Someone did an article on fish sauce and Squid was one of the worst ones, and I was like, ‘I use it and I think I have a pretty good palate.’ I like Squid, so anyone who wants to fight me on that can fight me. I stand behind it.”
Edward Lee, Chef and Owner at MilkWood in Louisville, KY and author of Buttermilk Graffiti
“I have whispered quietly to anyone who would listen that fish sauce is the magical elixir that makes everything taste better,” says Lee, who regularly plays Korean cuisine and food from the American South off one another in his restaurants. Lee swears by Red Boat, but he doesn’t stop at the brand’s flagship sauce: “BLiS collaborated with Red Boat to age their already-great fish sauce in used bourbon barrels for up to seven months. The result is a magical thing that I sometimes drink by the teaspoon when I want the world to feel right again. It is truly a perfume that adds an intangible beauty to almost any dish,” he says.
Nicole Ponseca, Owner of Jeepney in New York and Author of I Am a Filipino
Fish sauce, or patis, as it is known in the Philippines, is used both in the kitchen and tableside at Ponseca’s restaurant, Jeepney. It’s a key ingredient in sawsawan, which Ponseca describes as “a troika of condiments that makes a personalized dipping sauce, typically patis, an acid like vinegar, as well as chili and/or garlic.”
Ponseca says she looks for patis that’s “way more confident in its saltiness” than some other fish sauces. It should offer “unadulterated funk.” You’ll find a childhood favorite, Rufina, on her tables, but she notes that Kamayan is also a good option. To Ponseca, one thing is for sure when it comes to Filipino patis: “none of them are quiet in any way. These are the brass part of the band; it’s loud.” Sadly, patis can be a bit tricky to find online.
Leela Punyaratabandhu, Author of Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand
For Punyaratabandhu, fish sauce is fundamental: “You can’t achieve the quintessential Thai flavor by using other sources of salinity,” she explains, while noting that regional preferences in Thailand vary quite a bit. When choosing a bottle, Punyaratabandhu says she pays more attention to ingredient list than brand: “You want a high level of anchovy, not a lot of salt, and not a lot of sugar,” she says. Like Nguyen, she likes Megachef, but mentions Golden Boy as a worthwhile lower-cost brand as well.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious