What is Fish Sauce?

If you’ve ever eaten in a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant, you’ve probably had fish sauce. It’s used as a seasoning for pad thai, pho and countless other delicious Asian dishes as well as in dipping sauce for egg rolls, noodle bowls like bun thit nuong, and more. This guide serves as a reference on this flavorful condiment for homes chefs and foodies everywhere. 

Ingredients In Fish Sauce

From a purist perspective, fish sauce consists of anchovies and sea salt. The anchovies are crusted in sea salt and packed in barrels. Natural bacteria go to work breaking down the fish, resulting in a fishy, briny, savory liquid. It takes months, or up to two years, for the final product to fully ferment.

Fish sauce is raw, so all the enzymes are intact. It has omega-3 fatty acids and can replace tablet salt as a condiment.

Yes of course there’s fish, but what’s in fish sauce that may not be so obvious? All these brands contain anchovies or anchovy extra (except the vegan offering) and salt or sea salt. Some brands add water, sugar and other ingredients to make their own take.

  • IASA Anchovy Syrup Colatura di Alici di Cetara: Anchovies, sea salt
  • Red Boat Premium Fish Sauce: Anchovies, sea salt
  • Premium Anchovy Fish Sauce Gold: Anchovies, sea salt
  • “Flying Lion” Vietnamese-Style Fish Sauce: Anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose and hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Three Crabs Brand Fish Sauce: Anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose and hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Vegan Fysh Sauce: Organic seaweed, pineapple extract, rice wine, vinegar and other ingredients
  • Golden Boy Brand Fish Sauce: Anchovies, salt and sugar
  • Cetara Colatura di Alici: Extract of salted anchovies, salt
  • BLiS Barrel Aged Fish Sauce: Fresh black anchovy, sea salt
  • Thai Kitchen Sauce Fish: Anchovy extract, salt, sugar

Which Cuisines Use Fish Sauce?

Although the earliest mention of fish sauce lies in Ancient Roman texts, it’s primarily used in Southeast Asian cultures, especially Thailand and Vietnam. In these countries, a bowl of fish sauce is placed in the middle of the table as a dipping sauce or to add seasoning to rice and other dishes. Like ketchup or butter in the U.S., it’s a universal staple.

Thai Fish Sauce

In Thailand, this delicacy is called nam pla, which means “fish water.” It’s amber in color, and saltier and more pungent than its Vietnamese counterpart. The highest quality sauces have anchovies and salt only, but some brands have other ingredients or additives.

Here are just a few of the common Thai recipes using fish sauce as a main flavoring ingredient:

  • Pad Thai
  • Thai Red Curry
  • Thai Beef With Basil and Chilies

Vietnamese Fish Sauce

Vietnamese fish sauce, or nuoc mam, is lighter than the Thai version. The best-quality nuoc mam has just two ingredients: anchovies and salt. However, some include other fish or additives, such as sugar or preservatives.

Here are just a few of the common Vietnamese dishes using fish sauce as a primary ingredient:

What’s the Best Fish Sauce?

Arguably, the best fish sauce in Vietnam, and maybe the world, is made on Phu Quoc Island, off the coast of Vietnam. Anchovies caught along the 22-island archipelago are salted and fermented in large wooden vats for up to one year. This sauce is so coveted that the “Phu Quoc” name can only be used for sauce actually made on the island, according to the Protected Designation of Origin status assigned to it by the European Union.

The following brands use fish from Phu Quoc exclusively:

  • Phuc Quoc
  • Red Boat – 40 Degrees North
  • Flying Lion

The pure taste of this fish sauce is attributed to the abundant waters off Phu Quoc, which team with plankton, the preferred food of anchovies. However, there are many imitators. Some brands dilute the fish sauce with seawater. The highest quality brands are labeled as a 43g/L. The number decreases as the sauce is further diluted with sea water (range: 40, 30, 20 and finally 15g/L). On Phu Quoc, the first run, produced when the vats are first drained, is considered the best.

Fish Sauce Substitutes

I’ve had some great tasting fish sauce alternatives from vegetarian Vietnamese restaurants that have their own take on this. Keep in mind that fish sauce substitutes are meant to be just that–substitutes. But nothing is a one for one replacement for the real sauce made with anchovies, even if they are still delicious in their own right.

If you’re vegan, vegetarian or just would rather use something else, I’ve seen others substitute fish sauce with these:

  • soy sauce
  • mixing hoisin and miso sauce
  • Worchestshire Sauce
  • Vegetarian “fish” sauce

How Fish Sauce Is Made

Making homemade fish sauce is a great way to ensure that you know exactly what’s in it, however in terms of time invested, I’m not sure its worth it for most people. Also, you can skip the additives and preservative found in many off-the-shelf brands. However, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s smell extremely pungent, but once it’s fermented it packs the same flavor punch as the manufactured fish sauce.

The following recipe, from dietitian Anne Guillot, takes 15 minutes of preparation and makes one bottle. It gives us an idea of how you could make it, if you are so ambitiously inclined.

Ingredients:

  • Small anchovies (whole) – 1.5 lb.
  • Sea salt – 3 tablespoons
  • Water – 2 cups
  • Garlic – 2 cloves (mashed)
  • Bay leaves (crumbled) – 2
  • Black peppercorns – 1 teaspoon

Instructions:

Toss the fish in salt and store in a mason jar. Press the fish down in the jar and add the remaining ingredients. Add more water, if needed, to cover the fish. Leave one inch of space below the jar lid, then cover tightly and ferment at room temperature for three days. After that, transfer the jar to the fridge. After a few weeks, you can take it out of the fridge and strain it. More the strained liquid into a bottle and refrigerate the fish sauce once more. After six to eight months, the sauce is ready to use and should appear clear and dark.

Again please note that the sight and smell of the fermentation process can be pretty hard to take for some people. When you use it, one or two tablespoons should be enough. You may need to add more salt since your homemade fish sauce isn’t as salty as store brands.

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