Ingredient of the Week: Fish Sauce

Two of the three brands my family prefers
Two of the three brands my family prefers
Photo by John Suh

Like air and water, fish sauce is essential to me; I grew up with its smell and taste pervading every delicious dish my mother cooked for our family. But many of my friends (who are not of southeast Asian origin) retch every time they get within a ten-foot radius of the stuff. Despite my affinity for fish sauce, I am aware of the pungency; it's natural for someone who didn't grow up around it to shy away.

But this week, in order to curb the intimidation surrounding the sauce, we decided to feature it as the ingredient of the week. Read on, and learn how to eat, cook with and thus appreciate fish sauce.

What is it?

Called nuoc mam in Vietnamese or nam pla in Thai, fish sauce is a salty and strong-smelling condiment mostly used in Southeast Asian cuisine. The quintessential fish sauce is made with anchovies -- the fish and salt are lined in boxes to ferment and then pressed. The extracted liquid is the fish sauce. Fermented fish juice may not sound appealing, but when used correctly and in small quantities, fish sauce can add umami and texture to a dish.

How do I use it?

Fish sauce straight from the bottle can be used in marinades when mixed with other ingredients or, if you're brave, as a condiment -- I often add a few dashes to my rice for extra flavor. It's also often added during the cooking process as one would do with salt or pepper. And then depending on what sort of dipping sauce you're making, it can be combined with such ingredients as garlic, ginger, chili peppers, sugar, lime juice, or coconut juice. Some cooks even add 7-Up to fish sauce for a mildly effervescent, sweet and sour flavor.

Because it's already fermented, fish sauce does not need to be refrigerated. It also keeps indefinitely. I store mine in the cabinet below my stove next to the cooking oil.

Where can I find it?

You will find the most authentic fish sauce in the sauce and condiment aisle of Chinese/Vietnamese grocery stores. Look for ones made in Thailand or Vietnam and with only three ingredients: fish extract, salt, and water. The longer the fermentation period, the better. Quality fish sauce should be a lighter reddish-brown color like tea. All the cooks in my family swear by the Phu Quoc, Phan Thiet, or Viet Huong (three crabs) brands. I have yet to do a side-by-side taste test -- perhaps a future post in the making?

Recipes

This week, we again bring you two recipes -- a Thai and a Vietnamese dish -- to represent the two southeast Asian countries that utilize fish sauce the most.

Thai Pineapple Chicken Curry This is a red curry dish that is served hot over steamed white jasmine rice. If you prefer your curries less sweet like me, reduce the amount of sugar and coconut milk used in the recipe.

Caramelized Braised Pork Belly and Eggs Here is another recipe for those riding the pork belly bandwagon, from The Ravenous Couple. This was one of my favorite dishes to eat growing up, and my aunt recently taught me how to cook thit kho, as it's called in Vietnamese. Some prefer to simmer the pork and eggs in a clay pot, but any pot will do. Serve this over steamed jasmine rice with a side of pickled mustard greens.

What do you do with your fish sauce?



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