Best substitute for fish sauce | How to replicate the salty umami flavor

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  June 4, 2022

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You might be preparing Vietnamese pho or a meat marinade only to realize that the recipe calls for fish sauce.

While this condiment is a staple for many Asian households, you can’t always get good quality fish sauce at a regular grocery shop.

Best substitute for fish sauce | How to replicate the salty umami flavor

Unfortunately, some people may not be able to enjoy fish sauce because of dietary restrictions or allergies. Or perhaps you just don’t have fish sauce in your pantry and don’t want to go out and buy it.

If this is the case for you, there are several substitutes that can be used in its place.

Worcestershire sauce is the best substitute for fish sauce because it also contains anchovies and has a similar salty and fish flavor with a dark brown color. Soy sauce is the best fish-free alternative to fish sauce because it has the same salty flavor and dark color.

But there are many other options to choose from and they replicate the salty umami flavor, so let’s examine them below.

What is fish sauce and what are its characteristics?

Fish sauce (yú lù, 鱼露) is a popular condiment in Southeast Asian cuisine and parts of East Asia, especially China, Taiwan, and Japan.

It is made from fermented fish and salt and has a unique ‘umami’ flavor that can enhance the taste of many dishes.

Anchovies and krill are usually the fish of choice for making fish sauce.

The role of salt is that it draws out all of the moisture from the fish and it turns into a salty, briny liquid we call fish sauce.

The fermentation process creates amino acids, which are responsible for the strong umami flavor.

In fact, the longer the fish is fermented, the more umami the flavor is. When it ferments for a long time, the fish sauce loses some of its fishy taste and becomes nuttier.

When you taste it as is, the fish sauce has a slightly pungent taste that makes the taste buds tingle, but don’t worry, its umami taste is considered a pleasant flavor profile.

Thai fish sauce being used in Asian cooking

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Fish sauce has a brown or amber color. Its texture is best described as thin and runny, similar to soy sauce.

Fish sauce is very salty so it’s used sparingly and it also smells very fishy!

But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean it’s gone bad…that’s how fermented fish smells when bottled!

If you can’t have fish sauce because you are allergic to fish or following a special diet, you can use several substitutes that provide a similar taste and texture, although not exact.

After all, any substitute without fish or seafood (like oyster sauce) will lack the fishy flavor that makes fish sauce special.

The fish sauce adds savory umami notes to a dish, so the best substitutes are those that will also provide this complexity of flavor. It’s a great sauce for sushi!

While soy sauce is the most common fish-free alternative to fish sauce, there are other options to choose from depending on what you have on hand or what type of flavors you prefer.

Learn if and how the Japanese use fish sauce here

Best fish sauce substitutes

When substituting for fish sauce, it’s important to choose a product that has a similar umami, or savory, flavor.

Whether you want the same fishy taste or not, all of the following substitutes can be used in the same way as fish sauce in most recipes.

Worcestershire sauce

Lea & Perrins Original Worcestershire Sauce 5 oz Bottle as substitute for fish sauce

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Worcestershire sauce is the best fish sauce substitute, although it is not as commonly used in Asian cuisine. Since it’s also a fermented condiment that contains fish, it’s fairly similar.

This British condiment is made from fermented fish and has a similar flavor to fish sauce. The texture is also runny and the color is also brown.

The base ingredients of traditional Worcestershire sauce, like the one from Lea & Perrins, are: vinegar, fermented anchovies, molasses, tamarind extract, garlic, chili pepper extract, salt, and sugar.

Then, depending on the brand, some other natural flavorings are added such as cloves, or lemon essence.

In some cases, a bit of soy is added too, which gives it that soy sauce type of flavor.

While the taste is not exactly the same as fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce can provide a similar savory flavor to many recipes.

The flavor is a mix of sweet, sour, savory, and fishy – umami, just like fish sauce.

Using Worcestershire sauce to substitute for fish sauce

When it comes to substituting fish sauce with Worcestershire sauce, use it in a 1:1 ratio.

So, if your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, use 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce instead.

Just keep in mind that it is also quite salty, so you may want to use less than what the recipe calls for.

Soy sauce

Soy sauce is the best fish-free alternative to fish sauce because it has the same salty flavor and dark color.

Soy sauce is also a good choice if you want to avoid fish but still want that savory flavor in your dish.

It’s made from fermented soybeans and wheat, and it’s a staple condiment in Asian cuisine.

While the taste is not exactly the same, soy sauce can provide a similar savory flavor to your dishes.

Kimlan soy sauce as a substitute for fish sauce

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Soy sauce is a common substitute for fish sauce these days because it’s so readily available.

Even the color is similar, although soy sauce is usually lighter in color than fish sauce. In terms of texture, these two sauces are similar but fish sauce is slightly thicker than regular soy sauce.

Using soy sauce to substitute for fish sauce

You can substitute fish sauce with soy sauce in a 1:1 ratio.

So, if your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, use 1 tablespoon of soy sauce instead.

Soy sauces work well in recipes like pad thai, pho, noodle dishes, and soups because they replace fish sauce and give a similar flavor.

Kimlan Chinese Soy sauce is a great alternative to fish sauce.

However, it’s very salty so if you’re looking for a low sodium soy sauce, Premium Lite makes good shoyu.

Soy sauce + rice vinegar

Some people find that soy sauce alone is not enough to provide the same savory flavor as fish sauce.

If this is the case for you, try mixing soy sauce with rice vinegar in a 1:1 ratio. This combination is also a good choice if you’re looking for a gluten-free or vegan alternative to fish sauce.

The rice vinegar will add a bit of sweetness and acidity to the soy sauce, which will help to create a more complex flavor.

If you want, you can also add a bit of salt to taste. Remember that soy sauce is already quite salty so you may not need to add much (if any) additional salt.

Although it’s not quite like traditional fish sauce, this combo will replace the fish sauce really well!

Soy sauce + minced anchovy

Take one fillet of anchovy and minced it up into a fine paste-like consistency. Mix it with one tablespoon of soy sauce.

You can use this mixture as a substitute for one tablespoon of regular fish sauce.

The taste will be similar to fish sauce, but not exactly the same.

Anchovies are a key ingredient in fish sauce, so this is a good way to replicate the flavor.

I like to use a light soy sauce or low sodium soy sauce and mix it with an anchovy fillet but this is still quite a salty substitute.

Tamari

Tamari is a wheat-free and gluten-free soy sauce alternative that’s made from fermented soybeans.

It has a similar savory flavor and dark color, making it a good substitute for fish sauce.

The taste is not exactly the same but tamari can provide a similar savory flavor to your dishes. The flavor is best described as slightly nutty, salty, and savory.

San-J Tamari Gluten Free Soy Sauce as a substitute for fish sauce

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Tamari sauce is less salty than soy sauce or fish sauce but its flavor is bolder and stronger. Thus, when substituting, you can use slightly less tamari than fish sauce.

In stir-fries or marinades you can use a 1:1 ratio but if you’re adding tamari to soups and salads, you can use a bit less because of its bolder flavor.

Coconut aminos

Coconut aminos is a soy-free and gluten-free sauce made from fermented coconut sap.

Coconut aminos has a sweet flavor and dark color, making it a good substitute for fish sauce. The texture is also thin and runny, similar to fish sauce.

However, it lacks that fishy savoriness so it’s not an exact match. Regardless, it’s a good soy-free and gluten-free alternative.

Use coconut aminos as a substitute for fish sauce

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When substituting, use coconut aminos in a 1:1 ratio for fish sauce.

You may need to add a bit more salt to your dish since it is not as salty as fish sauce.

There’s no fish in this sauce, so it’s a good choice for those with fish allergies and a great substitute for fish sauce for all Asian recipes.

You can get liquid coconut aminos at many Caribbean specialty stores or online like this one from Coconut Secret.

Oyster sauce

If you love seafood and want to be sure you’re fish sauce substitute has that seafoody flavor, oyster sauce is the best option.

It’s made from oysters that have been simmered in water and then strained.

The final product is a thick, dark sauce with a briny flavor. Thus, the texture is not quite the same since it’s a thicker, viscous sauce.

It pours like syrup and goes well for stir-fries, marinades, and meat sauces.

Like fish sauce, the flavor of oyster sauce is slightly sweet, fishy, and salty.

Use Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Flavored Sauce as a substitute for fish sauce

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Oyster sauce is commonly used in Chinese cuisine but it can be used as a fish sauce substitute in any Asian recipe.

Keep in mind that oyster sauce is quite salty so you may not need to add any additional salt to your dish.

Use a 1:1 ratio when substituting oyster sauce for fish sauce.

Traditional oyster sauce like Lee Kum Kee has that authentic flavor chefs like!

Anchovy paste

Anchovy paste is another option, although it can be quite strong in flavor. A little goes a long way, so it should be used sparingly.

The reason why this is not near the top of the list is that it’s a paste, so it doesn’t have a runny texture.

It’s also quite salty and has a strong fishy flavor.

So, if you don’t like fish or are looking for a less pungent option, this is not the best choice.

That being said, it can be used as a 1:1 replacement for fish sauce. Just keep in mind that a little goes a long way!

If you can’t find anchovy paste, you can also try anchovy sauce, which is very similar to fish sauce.

Vegan fish sauce

Yes, there is such a thing as vegan fish sauce! In fact, vegan fish sauces are becoming more and more popular as people look for plant-based options.

The most common type of vegan fish sauce is made from mushrooms.

Mushrooms have an umami flavor, which is often described as a savory or meaty taste. When combined with the right ingredients, mushrooms can make a delicious vegan fish sauce.

Usually, vegan fish sauce is made from seaweed, liquid aminos, and mushrooms and has a similar savory, umami flavor.

The color is also dark brown, like regular fish sauce.

No Fish Sauce by Ocean's Halo as a substitute for regular fish sauce

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While it’s not an exact match, it’s a good option for those who want to avoid fish sauce but still get that umami flavor.

Use a 1:1 ratio when substituting vegan fish sauce for regular fish sauce.

The flavor is not as strong as regular fish sauce so you may need to add a bit more to your dish.

No Fish Sauce by Ocean’s Halo is a popular brand of vegan fish sauce.

Seaweed

Some people like to use fresh and dried seaweed as a fish sauce substitute because it has a similar savory, umami flavor.

It’s also a good source of iodine and other minerals.

However, it does have a strong ocean flavor that not everyone enjoys. Additionally, the texture is quite different since it’s in sheet or flake form.

You can use fresh and dried seaweed but dried works better.

If you decide to use seaweed as a fish sauce substitute, you’ll need to soak it in water and then chop it up into small pieces.

You can use it in a 1:1 ratio for fish sauce or drop a sheet of seaweed into the dish.

Be sure to add other seasonings to your dish since seaweed itself is quite bland.

2 tablespoons of chopped seaweed is a good substitute for 1 teaspoon of fish sauce.

Kelp flakes are a good type of seaweed to use as a fish sauce substitute.

Also read: Are Kombu, Wakame, and Kelp the Same? Seaweed benefits

Mushroom and soy broth

If you want a substitute for fish sauce for soups and broths, then you can use a homemade broth made with water, soy sauce, and dried shiitake mushrooms.

This sauce has a savory and salty flavor, similar to fish sauce. The mushrooms give that earthy taste but it’s not quite like the fishiness of a good seafood-based sauce.

If you want to replace fish sauce in soups, grab a medium pot and then mix the following ingredients:

  • 3 cups of water
  • 1/2 ounce of dried shiitake mushrooms (other mushrooms work too)
  • 3 tbsp of soy sauce

Simmer the broth for approximately 15 minutes until it reduces by half and then let the broth sit without boiling for another 15 minutes. Strain into a bowl and add it instead of fish sauce.

It’s best to use the mushroom soy sauce mix in a 2:1 ratio and then you can store the leftover broth in the fridge for up to 7 days or about 5 months in the freezer.

Also read: Can You Substitute Fish Sauce for Dashi? These 3 are better

Hoisin sauce

Hoisin sauce is made from a variety of ingredients like fermented soybeans, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, garlic, chilies, and sugar. It’s sweet and savory with a thick consistency.

This is a popular Chinese sauce that’s often used as a glaze, marinade, stir fry dishes, fried rice, or dipping sauce.

While it’s not fishy, hoisin sauce can be used as a 1:1 replacement for fish sauce. Just keep in mind that it is much sweeter than fish sauce so you may want to add less sugar to your dish.

June Moon Spice Company Hoisin sauce as a substitute for fish sauce

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Because it’s already a thick sauce, there’s no need to reduce it like you would with a fish sauce substitute.

It’s also quite sweet so you may want to add a bit more savory ingredients to your dish. It also has a zesty aftertaste which is a bit different from fish sauce.

A 1:1 ratio can be used when substituting hoisin sauce for fish sauce.

Takeaway

Fish sauce is known for its unique but delicious flavor. Yet, if you don’t have it on hand, there are some really great alternatives out there.

Worcestershire and soy sauce are the best substitutes for fish sauce because they go well with almost any dish and they have a similar savory and fishy aroma.

So, the next time you’re making fried rice or stir fry and want to add more flavor, any of the options I listed will work just fine.

Read next about the 12 best soy sauce substitutes you might already have

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.