10 Ways Fish Sauce Can Make Our Western Cooking Better
Updated: Apr 23
Mmmm. Fish sauce. Like many people I discovered fish sauce right after I first discovered Thai and Vietnamese food, a good decade before becoming a serious cook. It only took a bit of research and product sampling to realize it was as cuisine defining as soy sauce or ranch dressing. 20 years later I still slip it into meals at every turn. As a lover of things fishy it was instant attraction, but it takes a bit of familiarity and respect to know how to judiciously apply the beast's powers. But first:
A Bit of Western-centric History It is well known that the ancients (and others) made fish sauce (often from the garos fish) and that ancient Roman garum and liquamen were highly prized seasonings and primary salt sources in cuisine, possibly on par with olive oil and onions. Lower classes had less refined options, pretty much pure guts and blood, but it was ubiquitous. Its use continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance even. There are theories that fish sauce actually passed from West to East, and not the other way around, though it may have been parallel evolution.
Most importantly in allaying any fears, Ketchup was originally a pickled fish-based Chinese sauce with strong fish sauce similarities. The term "catchup" was even dictionary-ized in English by 1690. Fish sauce is much more a rediscovery than some sort of new invention, which means you should not fear this old friend. Today you can find Colatura from Southern Italy and it is only a matter of hours before some Portland hipster stuffs their smelly DIY fish juice in a bretty sherry barrel and becomes an Instagram hero.
None of this is to detract from the dominant histories of fish sauce use in Eastern- and Southeast-Asian culinary culture, but rather to push the idea that it is universally yummy and not as strange and distant a thing as might be thought.
Using Fish Sauce Fish sauce is fishy. Moving on from that banality, fish sauce (assuming it is of good quality) is quite diverse with a good deal of fermented complexity. It is also a good example of low temperature Maillard reactions, a more complicated cousin of caramelization and one of the most important processes we cooks utilize. It is a serious umami additive. Also, please don't be cheap and only buy decent quality in glass bottles and watch the additive numbers. Some sugar is ok, maybe some hydrolized vegetable protein (more umami) but if it has more than 5 ingredients? Skip it. Early on I read that fish sauce should either be cooked a lot or as briefly as possible, and this is a good way to think about it. Fish sauce in many applications is a deep flavor layering ingredient, usually beefing up the midrange with meaty, savory, caramelly tones and softening edges. In a stew, a pasta sauce, any slow and long-cooked braise add it early to allow the obvious aroma to dissipate while integrating. For a quick finishing pop riding from midrange to front and center, a splash at the end in the pan or integrated in to a sauce is the way to go. But always think of fish sauce as a voice amongst others. It loves sugar, especially sugar with acid, meats including beef and chicken, and the alium family. It is truly a chameleon and can be nudged in many directions provided you respect its potency yet have little fear. You can always add it - taking it away is another blog post.
My Favorite 10 Uses: 1. Caesar dressing. A hundred times better than cheap anchovies. Less overtly fishy and better integration. All of my restaurant consulting is using fish sauce instead of anchovies for Caesar and it wins every taste test. Email me for a bomb-proof recipe. 2. Marinara. Ragus. Sauces. If making an Italianate braise - use it early when sweating or sautéing your base ingredients. It will need a bit of air if you want no trace of fish aroma, so a loose fitting lid will make even trashy cousin Frank down with your 'sghetti and balls. Slip it into his hot wings sauce. 3. Savory caramel. This one smells but the end product is worth it, thought it is becoming a gastrique adding fish sauce with vinegar. Crack the windows. Making a gastrique should be a foundational element in the cooking arsenal by the way. 4. Grilling. Brush it on steaks before cooking. Seriously. This is a good secret treatment when you want to impress that special carnivorous someone. Beef and fish sauce have a special thing going on already, especially with a tiny pinch of brown sugar. Be sure to season properly. If you really want to impress give it the super simple three day Modernist Cuisine treatment. Roasting pork shoulder? Ham glaze? All worthy of thought. 5. Cold salads. Thinking panzanella? Hell yes because we know tomatoes and fish sauce have an intimate relationship and you can be a third wheel on that rocket ship. A tiny touch added to spicy salsas can really work well also. And don't fear it with roasted cruciferous veggies. 6. Emergency procedures. Don't be afraid to splash some in a really hot pan to burn off aroma and then add to ingredients you fret might not work. Is that mango salsa making you wonder if it can take it? Devolatilize first, then see. 7. Emergency procedures part two. We have all made a braise that is lacking something, that seems week in the middle or is fully reduced but lacking breadth. First ask if it needs acid or can take any more? Is it just a salt issue? My toolkit of salvage work includes fish sauce (sometimes devolatilized as above if it won't be cooked anymore), Worcestershire, fake balsamic, roasted tomato, oyster sauce, miso, sherry vinegar, roasted garlic. 8. A touch in a Bloody Mary. A dash in your scrambled eggs, dashimaki style. 9. Only use with meaty, heavy duty fish like salmon though. And, ironically use very carefully. Somehow delicate fish don't work for me with fish sauce, but gimme all the crustacean goodness I can get. I don't like it with tuna. Weird I know. 10. A couple drops in fancy sautéed mushrooms can add another umami and caramel hit. Make sure you cook your shrooms in a smoking hot pan and only salt (and add fish sauce) after the initial water loss is over, You generally want browned mushrooms for maximum goodness, not boiled, and don't forget a bit of acid to balance their alkaline nature.
- Bonus: paella stock. Along with your super-caramelized sofrito, building a seafood paella stock gets easier by supplementing your chicken stock with veggies, saffron, a little white wine (not too much or the acid will alter how the rice's texture) and simmer with fish sauce (a longer cooking here) to emulate the super fancy shellfish stock.
Stay tuned for #11-20!