Anchovy Sauce vs fish sauce: are they the same?

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Fish sauce is a popular liquid condiment all over the world, made from fermented fish or krill extract. The fish is salt-cured for anywhere between a few months to 2 years before being sold for consumption.

During this time, bacteria fermentation breaks down the fish to a sauce texture and this is how fish sauce is made.

It’s a staple seasoning in the majority of Asia. It’s used in various cuisines in East and Southeast Asian countries such as:

  • The Philippines
  • Thailand
  • Taiwan
  • Malaysia
  • China
  • Indonesia
  • Laos
  • Cambodia
  • Burma
  • and Vietnam

But anchovy sauce is also widely used. Isn’t anchovy fish, and aren’t they the same? Let’s look at the differences.

Anchovy sauce

Fish sauce became one of the most important ingredients to home cooks and chefs ever since it was recognized globally before the 20th century even began.

And the reason for that is because it has the ability to impart a savory umami flavor to dishes.

At the basic level, fish sauce and anchovy sauce are almost the same with only the curing processes having slight differences, but they are both fermented to get that umami flavor. You can safely substitute one for the other and get very similar results in a dish.

The glutamate content of the fish is brought about once it has been fermented – this is why people can taste the umami flavor in the fish sauce.

Besides being a favorite seasoning to most dishes, fish sauce is also used as a primary ingredient for making dipping sauces.

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Anchovy Sauce

Anchovy sauce is made from, well anchovies (a small, common forage fish of the family Engraulidae), which is gutted in brine and cured for several months to a few years.

This causes the cured anchovies to turn deep grey and creates their characteristic strong flavor.

My favorite anchovy sauce brand is this bottle from Chung Jung One:

Chung Jung One anchovy sauce

(view more images)

Fish sauce

Historically fish sauces were made using different species of fish and shellfish. Manufacturers either used the entire fish or just used its blood or viscera.

Today fish sauces are simply cured in salt and the fish types manufacturers use include anchovy, shrimp, mackerel, or other fish species that have high oil content and also have a strong flavor.

Some manufacturers use herbs and spices in creating their version of the fish sauce so that could cause more of a difference between the two.

Normally, modern fish sauces use fish or shellfish. Then they mix them with salt at 10% – 30% concentration in order to cure them.

The salted mixture is then placed in a specially designed container for curing. It’s sealed and cured for up to 2 years. That type of fish sauce is more expensive and considered more “premium”.

In some cases, the same fish that was cured will be used over and over again several times. They’ll use the re-extraction method which removes the fish mass and then boil it.

Caramel, molasses, or roasted rice is added to the second-pass fish sauces in order to improve the visual appearance and add taste to it.

Those are thinner and less costly. So if you buy cheap fish sauces that’s probably the reason for the difference in taste.

Another method used by some manufacturers in order to make more fish sauce is by watering down a first-press fish sauce.

This causes the fish sauce to have a pronounced fishy taste as they’ve only been briefly fermented (the anchovies in anchovy sauce are actually cured immediately after they’re caught).

That’s why some people can’t stand the taste of fish sauce but are perfectly fine with anchovy sauce, because of the way it’s often made to have a more fishy and pronounced taste.

If the fermentation process is done like it’s supposed to be, then the fish sauce will have a nuttier, richer, and more savory flavor.

Their Differences and Similarities

Fish sauce and anchovy sauce are almost the same with only the curing processes having slight differences.

And as for their taste, well, it varies from place to place as fish sauce and anchovy sauce have different preparation techniques, but the strong flavor is indistinguishable.

Asian and Southeast Asian fish sauce, however, have the special umami flavor as the fish they use to make the fish sauce have glutamate content in them and may taste better than the anchovy sauce (it also varies from experience).

Can I substitute anchovy sauce for fish sauce?

Yes, you can use them interchangeably in your dishes that may require one or the other as one of the ingredients. Just know that, especially with cheap fish sauce, you might get a fishier taste in your dish. I recommend using fish sauce to substitute anchovy sauce on a 3:4 ratio.

Just use a little less fish sauce.

Anchovy sauce goes way back

On the other hand, the Spanish boquerones, which are anchovies pickled in vinegar and have a milder flavor, retains the color of the anchovies’ flesh.

Even the ancient Romans used anchovies as the basis for their fermented fish sauce called “garum.”

Garum was specially developed for long-distance trading and commerce and was widely known across Europe and Africa for its long shelf life and was even mass-produced at an industrial level.

Anchovies were also eaten raw as an aphrodisiac.

Today, they are primarily used as a fermented condiment to add flavor to various dishes.

Its strong flavor also makes it favorable as a prime ingredient in making sauces and condiments such as Gentleman’s Relish, Worcestershire sauce, Caesar salad dressing, remoulade, other fish sauces, and sometimes in selected Café de Paris butter.

There are also anchovy fillets sold for domestic use that are packed in salt or oil in small glass or tin jars, or are sometimes rolled around capers.

Besides anchovy sauce and fillets they are also made into anchovy paste.

Some fishermen also use anchovies as bait in order to catch larger fish like sea bass and tuna.

It is because of the curing process that anchovies undergo that creates their strong taste and umami.

The Italian fresh anchovies known as “alici” are milder in flavor compared to other anchovies.

Anchovy fish sauce is as much in demand globally as other types of fish sauce, as a matter of fact, the success of fish sauce makers is solely attributed to their trade profession.

Also check out this sushi sauces name list to learn all the types

Anchovy paste

Anchovy paste has a similar flavor to anchovy sauce, as expected, but it’s made differently compared to anchovy sauce. The paste is made from cured anchovies which are ground up into a pasty consistency.

They are mixed with spices, water, vinegar, and a bit of sugar. The mixture is then usually packaged into tubes (which look like toothpaste) and sold at many Asian supermarkets.

You can use this paste as a condiment to add a fishy taste to all kinds of dishes, from soups to pasta, noodles, rice, and salad dressings.

Is anchovy paste the same as anchovy sauce?

Well no, not really. Western and French-style anchovy sauce is made from canned anchovies blended to a paste-like consistency.

But then, it’s made more liquidy with vinegar (usually red or white wine vinegar) and the flavor is enhanced with garlic, cloves, thyme, and pepper.

Some people will use other spices, but those are the basic ones.

Asian anchovy sauce, especially the Korean version is made with sea salt and raw anchovies which are left to ferment for 9-12 months.

Thus, it’s not made from canned anchovies, so it has that fermented and slightly pungent flavor. It’s basically most similar to fish sauce, except anchovies are used, not other types of fish and seafood.

Anchovy paste vs fish sauce

Both anchovy paste and fish sauce have similar flavors, but people tend to use them to flavor different types of dishes.

It’s not as fishy in flavor as fish sauce, but it can be salties are stronger in umami taste, so use it sparingly.

The main obvious difference between the two is consistency. Anchovy paste is thick and creamy, like miso paste, whereas fish sauce is a liquidy and runny sauce.

It’s a bit thicker than soy sauce, but it’s still easy to pour.

Popular uses for anchovy paste include:

  • as part of the dressing for Caeser salad
  • in stews
  • in soups to add umami flavor
  • for braises
  • pasta sauces
  • rubbing on steak
  • as a condiment for sauteed or roasted vegetables
  • chili
  • gravy

Recipes with Fish Sauce

  • Batchoy (Filipino chicken or pork soup with fish sauce)
  • Thai Steak and Noodle Salad
  • Braised Lamb Shanks with Fish Sauce
  • Shrimp Curry with Chickpeas and Cauliflower
  • Grilled Chicken Skewers With Asian Pear Slaw
  • Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Orange-Sesame Asparagus and Rice
  • Glazed Chicken Thighs
  • Aromatic Shrimp and Noodle Medicine Soup
  • Red Snapper with Sambal
  • Migas Fried Rice

Also read: what types of fish are used for sushi?

Check out our new cookbook

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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.