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What Is Fish Sauce & How Is It Used?

What Is Fish Sauce & How Is It Used?


Fish sauce is a wonderful sauce that adds a depth of flavor to any dish. But what exactly is it? Today, you’ll learn everything there is to know about fish sauce. Knowing the ins and outs of this staple ingredient is the perfect way to utilize fish sauce. 

 

What Is Fish Sauce?

Fish sauce is a staple item in Asian cuisine. There are quite a few names and variations that hail from different regions. The common denominator? Fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies. Of course, there are other ingredients, but one of the main flavor profiles comes from the fermented fish at its base. 


Vegan or vegetarian? Not a problem. There are plenty of ways to mimic the intensity of flavors in the fish sauce without compromising your diet. 

 

What Does Fish Sauce Taste Like?

Fish sauce is layered with flavor, and your taste buds will be satisfied. The mixture of fermented fish and other ingredients leads to layers of salty, savory, earthy goodness. It is a wonderful intensity that amplifies any dish. While the flavors are intense, they balance basic ingredients, like white rice quite well.

 

What Is Fish Sauce Made Of?

Wondering what exactly you’re eating? Here’s what you should know.

 

Ingredients

Three simple ingredients go into this decadent sauce: fish, salt, and water. That’s all you need to produce some of the richest flavors from the sea that amplifies flavor levels tenfold. 

 

 

Instructions

We’ve already told you that at the base of fish sauce is fermented fish, primarily anchovies or mackerel. Fish are coated in salt and left to ferment or cure in big barrels. 


Over time, they produce a salty, strong-flavored liquid, resulting in fish sauce. Of course, you’ll need large wooden barrels to make the process happen. You will also absorb some flavoring from the wood, so this is not a step that’s easy to skip. 

 

How To Use Fish Sauce

Fish sauce can be used in various ways and work in so many different dishes. You can add it to salad dressings for an earthy, aromatic depth. It makes an excellent base for any stir-fry dish and is added to the base of a broth for a hearty umami soup.


If you’re wondering how and where to use fish sauce, this section is for you. Let’s go over the common name variations for different Asian cooking techniques and regions. Then, we will give you some of the top uses so you can start adding fish sauce to some of your favorite meals. 

 

Vietnamese Fish Sauce: Nước Mắm

One of the staple ways fish sauce is used in Vietnam is Nước Mắm. This is a citrus and sweet balance to the salty notes in the fish sauce used as a dipping sauce. You can expect to see it accompany anything from spring rolls to grilled meats. 

 

Nước Chấm

Nước chấm is the broad term for dipping sauces in Vietnamese cooking. Much like the banchan served with every Korean BBQ experience, Nước chấm is a common condiment in Vietnamese cuisine. Phu Quoc is the name for traditional Vietnamese fish sauce that is incorporated in these Nước chấm varieties. 

 

Thai Fish Sauce: Nam Pla

Nam pla is a popular fish sauce used in Thailand. If you’re looking for a traditional Thai sauce that utilizes the umami brine of fish sauce, look no further than prik nam pla (พริกน้ำปลา). 


This blend of fish and chili sauces is extremely popular in Thai cuisine. It’s a spicy umami bomb that delivers a sweet, salty, and savory balance. 

 

Filipino Fish Sauce: Patis

Patis is the Filipino version of fish sauce. While it is utilized in many cooking techniques, it serves as the perfect dipping sauce with calamansi for fried fish and is one of the big flavor profiles in Arroz Caldo.

 

Popular Fish Sauce Recipes

In Asian cuisine, fish sauce is considered a staple pantry item. It can be used for stir fry dishes, marinade for meats, a base for pad thai noodles, green papaya salad, or added to other ingredients for the perfect potsticker dipping sauce. 

 

 

Once you get your hands on a bottle, here are a few of our favorite fish sauce recipes:


  • Green mango with fish sauce (Mak Muang Som Klub Jaew Wan)
  • Spicy green papaya salad
  • Thai ground pork salad
  • Thai green curry hot wings
  • Beef summer rolls
  • Rice-noodle salad with chicken and herbs
  • Fish sauce caramel chicken

Fish Sauce vs. Oyster Sauce

Fish sauce and oyster sauce are similar, but a few distinct differences will help you tell them apart. For one, the base might be seafood, but fish sauce is more pungent. Oyster sauce uses juices from oysters, so the brine imparted from shellfish is more subtle. 

 

Where To Buy Fish Sauce

Are you worried about finding a good brand of fish sauce? Most Asian grocery stores will carry fish sauce, but Umamicart has all your fish sauce brands. 

 

How To Store Fish Sauce

Once opened, the fish sauce should be stored in its original container, lid on, and tightly fastened in the pantry. While fish sauce doesn’t need to be refrigerated, it will require cool temperatures to keep it from spoiling. 

 

What Can I Substitute for Fish Sauce?

If you don’t have fish sauce on hand or follow a vegan diet, you may wonder whether there are alternatives to fish sauce. 


We’ve got the best fish sauce alternatives here:


Soy Sauce

Soy sauce will give you those salty notes but may lack some of the fish sauce taste imparted from the sea. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent way to mimic the intensity of the fish sauce. 


If you’re not a huge fan of the salty flavor of soy sauce, try dark soy sauce. It will have a sweeter balance but less of that salt kick you want to avoid. 

 

Mixing Hoisin and Miso Sauce

Hoisin sauce has a sweet-savory balance that is great at copying some of the tangy notes of fish sauce. Mixed with miso's savory richness, you’re really onto something. 

 

Worcestershire Sauce

This is a straightforward alternative but won’t work for vegetarian or vegan diets. At the base, Worcestershire sauce is anchovy paste, so it’s another animal product. 


For those not worried about this, fish sauce is a little saltier, but the intense aromatics of Worcestershire sauce are on par with fish sauce. 

 

Vegan Fish Sauce

Most vegan fish sauce varieties are made with dried shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce to provide just the right meaty punch as a fish sauce substitute. 

 

Takeaway

By now, you may have realized just how versatile fish sauce is and not just for dishes from Southeast Asia. There are many ways to add that umami goodness to other cuisines, and we are confident you are ready to find your inspiration. 


When you’re ready to make a grocery run to pick up fish sauce, don’t grab the keys yet! Umamicart delivers high-quality Asian groceries right to your door. 



Sources:

Fermented fish products in South and Southeast Asian cuisine: indigenous technology processes, nutrient composition, and cultural significance | PMC 

Using Fish Sauce as a Substitute for Sodium Chloride in Culinary Sauces and Effects on Sensory Properties | NIH 

Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake), Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults | NIH 

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