Do Japanese use fish sauce? This is how they get their own flavor

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  May 28, 2020
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Japanese fish sauce (Shoyu) was not as hip as most other versions of fish sauce in other Asian countries. People loved it around the 1990s, but the trend decreased a little bit after that.

The most popular Japanese dish that uses fish sauce as one of the ingredients is Shottsuru Nabe (fish hot pot) and Ishiri Kaiyaki (grilled scallop).

Other foods that may use Japanese fish sauce are Sashimi (raw fish), Shottsuru Yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), and Asazuke (lightly pickled food).

sushi with japanese fish sauce

A Taste of Japanese Fish Sauce

Many Asian countries have their own version of fish sauce. The main aspect that distinguishes Japanese fish sauce with other countries’ fish sauces is the taste.

While most fish sauces from other countries have a strong aroma and fishy flavor, this does not apply to Japanese fish sauce. Japanese fish sauces are mild.

You can barely notice the fishiness either from the aroma or the taste. It has quite a deep flavor from the years of the fermentation process.

I also have this post on all of the different Japanese sauces you can think of and how their used. You should take a look at that as well if you want to learn more about Japan’s use of sauces.

With such a big difference between Japanese fish sauces and other countries’ ones, many people in Japan dislike the imported fish sauce. You can’t even use them as a substitute for other condiments in the kitchen anyway.

Japan itself has many local versions of fish sauce, with each version coming from a different region. The most famous one is called shottsuru from Akita Prefecture.

Two other versions of Japanese fish sauces that are also popular are ishiru or ishiri from Ishikawa Prefecture.

Japanese don’t like to over flavor their dishes and keep thing natural, much different than Korean food and I find that very interesting. I’ve recently dove deeper into these differences and explained both Korean and Japanese food culture in this in depth post here.

japanese soy sauce

Shottsuru

People make shottsuru out of sailfin sandfish. The fermentation process takes a lot more time than other kinds of fish sauces.

While other Japanese fish sauces take months to ferment, shottsuru approximately can take three years to reach the right amount of fermentation. However, there is a company that also offers a 10-years processed shottsuru as a premium offer.

The most popular dish that uses shottsuru is the Shottsuru Nabe. It is similar to traditional Asian hot pot soups with seafood or beef. People also love adding shottsuru while cooking yakisoba as it enhances the umami flavor more naturally.

There are a few different kinds you can buy, but my favorite flavor is of this Akita Shottsuru from Moroi Brewing that has the taste I most associate with how it is served in Japan:

Akita shottsuru japanese fish sauce

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Here’s a video from the Japan News on exactly this type of sauce:

Ishiru/Ishiri

The fish sauce from Ishikawa Prefecture has two variations:

Although sometimes the name ishiru and ishiri are used interchangeably, some sources stated that ishiru refers to the one made from squid innards. Meanwhile, ishiri is the sardines one.

The most popular dish in this region is the ishiri kaiyaki, a squid dish grilled with fish sauce.

People also love using ishiri in many other dishes such as sashimi and asazuke pickles. Adding ishiri to those dishes may enhance the richness of the flavor without making it taste too much like sauce.

My favorite for this very reason is this Jinshi Ishiri fish sauce that’s not too overpowering:

Jinshi Ishiri Japanese fish sauce

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Ikanago Shoyu

There is another version of Japanese fish sauce. It is called ikanago shoyu from the Seto Inland Sea in the Kagawa Prefecture.

This one is a soy sauce made of sandlace fishes. But compared to those two other versions of fish sauce mentioned above, this one is barely known by other than local people.

The Takeaway

After falling near to extinction, Japanese fish sauce has made its way back to life.

The condiment is not as popular as other Japanese authentic condiments such as dashi soup and mirin. Neither it is as hip as Thailand’s nam pla or other countries’ versions of fish sauce.

However, this one has the most unique characteristic of a fish sauce. It would be quite an unforgettable culinary experience.

You should learn more about dashi as well if you’re into Japanese cuisine and sauces. I’ve written an in depth post on authentic dashi here. If you’ve got some time you should read it.

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.