Fish sauce: an important staple ingredient in Asian cuisine
Dishes like pad thai, noodle soups, stir-fries, and curries often contain a splash of fish sauce, and the sauce is also used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls and other appetizers for its rich, salty, fishy, and pungent taste.
Fish sauce is a liquid condiment made from fish that has been fermented in salt for several months. It is used as a dipping sauce and seasoning ingredient in many Asian dishes. Fish sauce has a pungent, salty flavor and is an important component of Southeast Asian cuisine.
In this blog post, I’ll discuss all things fish sauce: how it’s made, its popular pairings, and its history and I’ll explain why it’s one of Asia’s favorite seasonings.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What is fish sauce?
- 2 What does fish sauce taste like?
- 3 Does fish sauce smell?
- 4 How is fish sauce made?
- 5 What’s the origin of fish sauce?
- 6 What type of fish is fish sauce made from?
- 7 What is fish sauce used for? Popular pairings
- 8 How long does fish sauce last?
- 9 Is fish sauce healthy?
- 10 Where to buy fish sauce & best brands
- 11 What’s the difference between fish sauce and oyster sauce?
- 12 Is fish sauce and hoisin sauce the same?
- 13 What is a good substitute for fish sauce?
- 14 Conclusion
What is fish sauce?
Fish sauce is made by fermenting fish in brine (a saltwater solution) for several months.
The fish breaks down and releases its juices, which are then collected and bottled. Therefore, fish sauce is quite literally made from fish!
Fish sauce is generally fermented anywhere between a couple of months to two years, and the longer it ferments, the stronger the flavor will be.
The fermentation process also creates a deep red color in the sauce, which can range from light pink to brown.
Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in many Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Japanese, Chinese, and Cambodian dishes.
It is used to add flavor to soups, curries, stir-fries, and marinades.
In countries like Japan, fish sauce is a common substitute for soy sauce. In the Philippines, it’s referred to as patis, and the Vietnamese refer to it as Nuoc Cham.
Fish sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce or added to other sauces to give them a salty, fishy flavor.
It is used as a seasoning and comes in a liquid form, with a reddish-brown color and runny texture.
What does fish sauce taste like?
Fish sauce is a funky mix of flavors – it is salty, very fishy, and slightly sweet. It has a bit of pungent taste, too, since it’s made of fermented fish.
So, it definitely has a bit of a funky taste, but it works well when added to foods.
The taste is rich and bold and adds a lot of flavors to a dish.
The Japanese often describe the flavor of fish sauce as umami. This is the fifth taste that we perceive, after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
People love fish sauce’s flavor because it is umami, earthy, and savory and covers much of the flavor spectrum that gives foods like mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, and soy sauce their complex, crave-inducing flavors.
The sauce does have a distinct, strong fish flavor, but it is balanced off by a salty, briny, caramel-like sweetness.
Does fish sauce smell?
Yes, fish sauce definitely has a smell. It is made of fermented fish, after all!
The fermentation process gives fish sauce a pungent, fishy smell.
Some people find the smell to be off-putting, but it dissipates once the sauce is cooked.
The smell might be strong, but the taste is much milder. In fact, many people say that fish sauce tastes nothing like it smells.
How is fish sauce made?
While the majority of its flavor does come from fish, as claimed, there’s a whole lengthy process the fish goes through before that bottle of fish sauce appears.
The fish are packed into barrels with salt, and the whole mixture is left to ferment.
Fish is fermented for a period of time ranging from a few months to several years to achieve the true flavor.
Naturally occurring bacteria begin to decompose the fish, creating a tasty, briny liquid.
There’s a strong, pungent smell while the fermentation is happening, but it dissipates somewhat during the bottling process.
After fermentation, the fishy mixture is strained and bottled as fish sauce.
Some manufacturers add water, sugar, and MSG to their fish sauces to cut down on the intense flavor, but the best quality fish sauces are made with just fish, salt, and water.
Find out more about the magical process of fermentation and why it makes foods so amazing
What’s the origin of fish sauce?
Fish sauce is a very ancient seasoning.
The Ancient Greeks were using it during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The Romans named it garum and used it as a sauce, dip, and seasoning.
The sauce was also used in Vietnam and China. In fact, there is evidence that fish sauce was being made in Vietnam as early as the 2nd century BC.
Fish sauce was an essential ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine long before chili peppers and other spices were introduced to the region.
The reason fish sauce was invented was that fish is quick to spoil and rot. Therefore, they needed to find a way to preserve it.
The fermentation process not only preserved the fish but also created a delicious and versatile sauce that could add flavor to all types of foods.
It’s not clear how fish sauce made its way to Asia. Some historians believe the sauce traveled from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome through the Silk Road and Mesopotamia all the way to the Far East.
What type of fish is fish sauce made from?
As mentioned earlier, fish sauce is made from small fish or krill that have a high ratio of protein to bones.
Anchovies are the most commonly used fish in fish sauce, but other types of small fish, such as herring, mackerel, or sardines, can be used as well.
Krill is sometimes used to make fish sauce, too.
The fish are usually wild-caught and fresh, but some manufacturers do use frozen fish.
What is fish sauce used for? Popular pairings
Fish sauce is a versatile ingredient and can be used in a variety of dishes.
If you’re in a Thai restaurant, you might find a bottle of fish sauce on the table. It is used as a condiment in the same way Americans use salt and pepper.
It is commonly used as a dipping sauce, added to soups and curries, or used as a marinade.
Fish sauce is also a common substitute for soy sauce in countries like Japan.
Some popular pairings for fish sauce include:
- Fish sauce and lime juice: This is a classic pairing that is often used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls or as a dressing for salads.
- Fish sauce and chili peppers: This is a popular combination in Southeast Asian cuisine. It is often used as a dipping sauce or added to soups and curries.
- Fish sauce and garlic: This pairing is commonly used as a marinade for meats or as a dipping sauce.
- Fish sauce and sugar: This combination is often used as a dipping sauce or added to soups and curries.
Then there are several traditional dishes from Asian countries where fish sauce is a key ingredient:
- Filipino curry
- Japanese curries
- Dipping sauces
- Rice dishes
- Meat marinades
- Pad Thai
- Pasta sauces
- Noodle sauces
How long does fish sauce last?
Fish sauce has a pretty long shelf life. If stored in a cool, dark place, it can last for up to 3 or 4 years.
Once opened, fish sauce will last for 6-12 months.
You’ll know it’s gone bad if it starts to smell rancid or sour.
Is fish sauce healthy?
Yes, fish sauce is a healthy condiment. It is low in calories and fat and is a good source of protein.
It also contains amino acids which are beneficial for the digestive system.
Fish sauce also contains a variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, iron, and selenium.
In addition, fish sauce contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart health.
Fish sauce is also a good source of probiotics, which are beneficial for gut health.
However, this condiment can be quite salty, so it is best to use it in moderation, especially if you’re watching your sodium intake.
Does fish sauce raise blood pressure?
There is some evidence to suggest that fish sauce may raise blood pressure.
Eating too much fish sauce can be bad for health because of the high sodium content.
If you have high blood pressure, you should limit your intake of fish sauce.
Where to buy fish sauce & best brands
Fish sauce is now sold at most Western grocery stores and supermarkets.
It’s also always available at Asian supermarkets, or you can order some online.
There’s no doubt Red Boat is one of the most popular brands because it makes a tasty, authentic-style fish sauce.
Red Boat Fish Sauce is a chef-grade pure fish sauce that contains only two ingredients – anchovies and sea salt. Thus, there are no added preservatives or additives.
When cooking, a pure fish sauce will that is not mixed with water or MSG will provide the most intense flavor.
The fish are sustainably caught off the coast of Vietnam and fermented for over a year in traditional clay pots.
The result is a rich, amber-colored fish sauce with a complex flavor that’s perfect
When choosing a fish sauce, always look for one that is made with 100% fish and does not contain any added preservatives or MSG.
What’s the difference between fish sauce and oyster sauce?
While both fish sauce and oyster sauce are made from seafood, they are quite different.
Fish sauce is made from small fish or krill that are fermented in salt and water.
Oyster sauce, on the other hand, is made from oysters that are simmered in water until they release their natural flavors.
Oyster sauce is thicker and sweeter than fish sauce, and it is often used as a dipping sauce or as an ingredient in stir-fries.
Is fish sauce and hoisin sauce the same?
No, fish sauce and hoisin sauce are not the same.
Hoisin sauce is made from a combination of soybeans, garlic, sugar, and spices. It is thick and sweet with a slightly spicy flavor.
Fish sauce, on the other hand, contains fermented fish.
Hoisin sauce is occasionally substituted with fish sauce. This is because, despite lacking the sweetness component, fish sauce is similarly harsh and salty to hoisin sauce.
What is a good substitute for fish sauce?
The best substitute for fish sauce is either Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce.
Worcestershire sauce is made from a variety of ingredients, including anchovies, vinegar, and spices. Thus it has a similar umami fishy taste.
Soy sauce, on the other hand, is made from fermented soybeans and has a salty taste.
It can be used as a 1:1 replacement for fish sauce in most recipes.
Fish sauce is a popular Southeast Asian condiment that is made from small fish or krill that are fermented in salt and water.
With its umami flavor, fish sauce gives food a pleasant fishy, salty, and sweet taste that is perfect for dipping sauces, marinades, and soups.
Luckily, this seasoning is readily available outside of Asia, so you can make your favorite Asian dishes at home with ease.
When choosing a fish sauce, always look for one that is made from 100% fish and does not contain any added preservatives or MSG.
Now that you know all about fish sauce, why not try using it in your next dish?
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.