‘It makes everything taste better’: how to buy and cook with fish sauce

The Guardian
30 May 2020
By Palisa Anderson
A high quality version of Phrik Nam Pla – chilli in fish sauce – is the mark of a great Thai restaurant.

Ask anyone who grew up with fish sauce and they’ll tell you anything from ragu to beans on toast can benefit from a splash or two

Yes, on its own, the olfactory experience of fish sauce might remind you of standing in the middle of pungent, damp fish market, knee deep in fishy detritus. But when it is part of much greater whole, fish sauce has a magic power: it lifts the rest of a dish.

For a Thai diner, great service is not being fussed and fawned over. It is not being taken through the menu details blow by blow – it comes in the form of a little dish filled with freshly chopped birds eye chillies, immersed in fish sauce, which arrives at your table before your food is served. That action alone has the power to make the diner return.

This is no joke. A condiment made of variants of fish, fish parts, salt (and sometimes water) is an important ingredient for a majority of world cuisines, whether they’re calling it nahm pla, shottsuru, nuoc mam, garum, patis, ayu gyosho, colatura di alici, teuk trei, kecap, Worcestershire, or terasi.

The names may vary, but what is universally agreed upon is that, if you’ve got a deft hand, fish sauce makes a good dish infinitely better, and instantly gives something ho-hum an X-factor.

If the cook is the conductor of a dish, then fish sauce is the first violin, defining and carrying the melody, adding character. But its inclusion is often unknowable. Unless you are a well-versed home cook or chef, the thing that makes a dish taste amazing can’t quite be placed.

If your heritage means you grew up eating food where fish sauce is a ubiquitous ingredient, you probably have the proclivity to souse nearly everything savoury with it.

I grew up thinking fried eggs came complete with fish sauce, the lacy fried whites and creamy half-cooked yolks were the perfect vehicle for the deep, rich, salty mineral taste I craved. That was where the flavour and satiety was.

“To my chagrin it’s suddenly very hip for white ladies and gentlemen to write fish sauce into their recipes, well dang that!”

I was shamed into submission by a visiting school friend who pinched her nose on a play date when she saw me eat said eggs with relish. Afterwards I asked my mum to please cook something “normal” when friends were over; like canned beans on toast.

Experiences like this mean that, in the past, many of us added fish sauce to our cooking timidly – in the presence of our friends of paler shades – for fear they’d unfriend us if they knew what we were actually eating. So perhaps it is on us that it’s been kept secret for so long.

Fast forward 30 years and much to my chagrin it’s suddenly very hip for white ladies and gentlemen to write fish sauce into their recipes, well dang that!

No, I’m not bitter, I’m mainly glad that it’s out in the world more broadly, and has become a pantry staple. Now we’ve arrived at the state of maturity where we can all eat more delicious food – without judgemental stares – we have power in numbers. We can demand better quality fish sauce.

First, the basics: fish sauces can be same, same but different. Their tastes vary on factors like the species of fish used (most commonly oily fish varieties); whether it is fresh water or from the open sea; how much salt is added; whether or not fish is the only protein (there are versions that include krill, squid, prawns, soy and even wheat); what kind of vessel was used during the ageing process; the method of extraction and so on. Speak to a connoisseur, and they will tell you that these are all crucial to differentiation between sauces. Most of us don’t look at the fine print – but it’s worth it.

How to choose quality fish sauce, wherever you live:

  • Look for a minimum of three ingredients, the main one being fish.
  • Make sure the sauce is preservative-free, colour-free, MSG-free and additive-free.
  • Minimum to no sugar is my preference, as during the cooking process you can add your own sweet element. You have more control over this if you are using seasoning that starts off with a higher purity.
  • What you pay for is often what you get. If there’s a difference of a couple of dollars, pay more. A little fish sauce goes a long way.
  • Buy a larger bottle, it’s often more economical and it’ll keep.
  • When you read the label, don’t be confused by the number before an N. This means the level of amino nitrogen, and indicates the protein level in the sauce. The higher the number the better the grade. Look for anything over 30N.
  • As in olive oil, the first pressing is always the best.

Brands to look out for

Red Boat is light enough to use as a dressing on salad greens, while Megachef is a favourite of chefs such as Christine Mansfield and Andy Ricker. Photograph: Red Boat, Megachef

Some of my favourite South East Asian fish sauces are made in Phu Cuoc, Vietnam and the Traat region of Southern Thailand.

Megachef brown label premium fish sauce: This is a collaboration between Megachef and the venerable chef David Thompson. It has many fans including, but not limited to chefs Christine Mansfield, Prin Polsuk and Andy Ricker.

Red Boat premium 40N: This is my go to. I love it so much that I started stocking it at our grocery store, so that I can have access to it without shortage. It has a lovely clean flavour, and is light enough to simply dress greens without overpowering the delicateness of freshly picked leaves. Chef’s Thi Le and Jerry Mai also are fans of Red Boat. If you’re interested in the different types of by-products that can come from fish sauce production, I urge you to look them up. They’ve put out an interesting fish salt which chef Andy Ricker likes to use when grilling meat.

What to add fish sauce to

More than cheese on toast: Tommy Heaney’s Welsh rarebit. Photograph: Ola O Smit/The Guardian
  • Ragu, or any pasta sauces that are tomato, cream or cheese based. The reason is simple – fish sauce is another form of natural glutamate, like cheese or tomato. It will enhance the flavour without distracting.
  • Savoury rice-based dishes such as fried rice, bibimbap, risotto, paella, congee or biryani.
  • Soups, stews, curries and braises.
  • Marinades for meat, seafood and vegetables.
  • Egg dishes: omelettes, scrambled, frittata, baked, and savoury custards like chawanmushi and of course fried eggs – sunny side up! This is still my go-to comfort food as an adult, especially if I can get duck eggs.
  • Beans on toast: funnily enough, my childhood request for “normal food” can be made infinitely more palatable with the addition of a few drops of fish sauce.
  • Welsh rarebit: Worcestershire is a variation of fish sauce – a very British dish has had fish sauce as its magic ingredient all along.

How to cook with fish sauce

There are codes of conduct that you must be aware of if this is your first foray – go in gently. If you are using fish sauce, start with a few drops, and keep tasting until you hit the right balance.

Don’t mix your salts, start as a puritan. If you are using fish sauce, often that will be enough, no need to go overboard and use soy sauce or salt in the same dish. When your hand is deft, that is when you can experiment.

When your next dinner guest comments on how wonderful your cooking is, you can whole-heartedly tell them “why, I just added fish sauce” and know you have been inducted into a tradition that goes back thousands of years.

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