A friend asked me what was in one of my Thai recipes the other day. I started listing off the ingredients, and I almost cringed when I got to, “fish sauce,” because right when I said it, I saw it in her eyes, the disdain, and “Eww, gross!” flashing quietly through her mind.
I feel bad for fish sauce: it’s got a bad name and a bad smell, and all of that distracts you from its magical power.
It’s like a potion for food. If you taste a Thai dish and the flavor isn’t really there, with just a few drops of fish sauce sprinkled over like waving a magic wand, after another taste, suddenly those flavors burst out of hiding and vibrantly pop out all over your tongue.
I vote we change the name to Thai Flavor Bomb Sauce instead to help people look beyond its name and its fishy smell to see it for what it really is inside: an amazing source of saltiness and umami that gives depth to the flavor of tons of Thai dishes.
How is fish sauce is made?
I learned through the Thai chef Kosma Loha-unchit that fish sauce is traditionally made of tiny fish that live in schools in the emerald green waters in the Gulf of Thailand.
The schooling fish are caught and put into earthenware jars with layers and layers and layers of salt between them, and then covered up with a bamboo mat and left to ferment for about a year.
Then the salty sauce is drained out with a spigot, strained, and then it airs out for a few weeks, so it doesn’t smell quite as fishy once it’s bottled up.
Some Thais even make their own fish sauce at home, like my Thai Hubby’s grandma did when he was a kiddo.
He would walk home from school, and when he was still a long way off on the road to his house, he would smell the fish sauce fragrance coming from his home from down the road, and would know that Grandma was making fish sauce.
That meant for days she would put anchovies in simmering water in a pot at her outdoor kitchen, and let it boil down. Then she would bottle up the fish sauce in glass jars, and hand it out to her neighbors, sort of like how we go pass out Christmas cookies to ours!
How do you use fish sauce?
Fish sauce is used in almost every Thai dish. They always say, if you taste a Thai dish, and aren’t sure what flavor is lacking, when in doubt, add fish sauce!
Fish sauce’s flavor profile is savory, umami, and helps bring out all the flavors in the dish.
I’ve especially noticed fish sauce transform when I’m making Thai soups or curries. If you first taste your Thai soup, and the flavors aren’t very strong, add a tablespoon or so of fish sauce and magically you will see the flavors become more vibrant.
Of course if you add too much, it will taste salty. Just like when you add salt to a dish, add just enough and not too little and it will balance things perfectly.
I’ve tried making vegan fish sauce before, and it tastes fine, but really, without the fish, you really can’t get that same depth of flavor.
What kind of fish sauce is best?
We live in the mountains of NC, so if I can find any fish sauce, I’m happy. The Asian market we go to always has this Squid Brand Fish Sauce, so that’s what we use. I often saw Tiparos fish sauce at Thai street food vendor carts, so that means it’s legit. But any fish sauce that says it’s from Thailand is usually good.
Is fish sauce good for you?
Yup! Fish sauce has all of these awesome nutrients:
- a complete protein with essential amino acids
- B vitamins, especially B 12
If you want to cook Thai food, fish sauce is an essential ingredient for your pantry.
Don’t be afraid of it! It really wont make your food fishy, but it will give it that flavor you always love the moment a bite of Thai food enters your lips!
Stay tuned for more essential Thai food ingredients to stock in your pantry for cooking Thai food!
P.S.-Our family all loves fish sauce at an early age! The below pic is our oldest son when he was around 4 months old, and the above pics are of my daughter when she was 5 months old!