Fish sauce is a condiment made from fish coated in salt and fermented from weeks to up to two years. It is used as a staple seasoning in various cuisines in Southeast and East Asia, particularly Indonesian, Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese. Upon widespread recognition of its ability to impart a savory umami flavor to dishes it has become embraced globally by chefs and home cooks.
Fish sauce is both added to dishes as a seasoning and used as a base in dipping sauces. The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content. Soy sauce is the vegetarian alternative to fish sauce.
Historically, fish sauces were widely used in ancient Mediterranean cuisine. The earliest recorded use of a fish sauce was between 4-3rd century BC by the Ancient Greeks, who made a fermented sauce from the scraps of fish called garos,. It is believed to have been made with a lower salt content than modern fish sauces.
The Romans made a similar condiment called either garum or liquamen. According to Pliny the Elder, "garum consists of the guts of fish and other parts that would otherwise be considered refuse, so that garum is really the liquor from putrefaction."
Garum was made in the Roman outposts of Spain almost exclusively from mackerel by salting the scrap fish innards, and then sun fermenting the flesh until it fell apart, usually for several months. The brown liquid would then be strained, bottled, and sold as a condiment.
Garum was ubiquitous in Classical Roman cooking. Mixed with wine it was known as oenogarum, or with vinegar, oxygarum, or mixed with honey, meligarum. Garum was one of the trade specialties in Hispania Baetica.
Garum was frequently maligned as smelling bad or rotten, being called, for example, "evil-smelling fish sauce" and is said to be similar to modern Colatura di Alici, a fish sauce used in Neapolitan cuisine.
Fish sauce is also thought to have evolved independently in China. Sauces made from fermented fish parts with other ingredients, such as meat and soya bean added to it, have been recorded in China 2300 years ago. During the Zhou dynasty of ancient China, fermented fish with salt was used as a condiment in which soybeans were included during the fermentation process. By the time of the Han dynasty, this had been replaced with the recipe for soy paste and its by-product soy sauce, by using soybeans as the principal ingredient, with fermented fish-based sauces developing separately into fish sauce. A fish sauce, called kôechiap in Hokkien Chinese, or kecap in Indonesia might be the precursor of ketchup.
By 50-100BC, demand for fish pastes in China had fallen drastically, with fermented bean products having become a major trade commodity. Fish sauce, however, developed massive popularity in Southeast Asia. Food scholars traditionally divide East Asia into two distinct condiment regions, separated by a bean-fish isogloss: Southeast Asia, mainly using fermented fish (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia) and Northeast Asia, using mainly fermented beans (China, Korea, Japan). Fish sauce re-entered China in the 17th and 18th centuries, brought from Vietnam and Cambodia by Chinese traders up the coast of the southern provinces Guangdong and Fujian.
Ingredients & Manufacture
Fish sauces historically have been prepared from different species of fish and shellfish, and from using the whole fish, or by using just fish blood or viscera. Most modern fish sauces contain only fish and salt, usually made from anchovy, shrimp, mackerel, or other strong-flavored, high oil fish. Some variants add herbs and spices. For modern fish sauces, fish or shellfish is mixed with salt at a concentration of 10% to 30%. It is then sealed in a closed container for up to two years.
Once the original draft has been made, some fish sauces will be produced through a re-extraction of the fish mass via boiling. To improve the visual appearance and add taste, second-pass fish sauces often have added caramel, molasses, or roasted rice. They are thinner, and less costly. Some volume manufacturers of fish sauce will also water down a first-press to manufacture more product.
Fish sauce that has been only briefly fermented has a pronounced fishy taste. Extended fermentation reduces this and gives the product a nuttier, richer and more savory flavor. An anonymous article, "Neuc-num", in Diderot and d'Alembert's 18th-century Encyclopédie, states: "It is said that Europeans become accustomed enough to this type of sauce".
While there is no strict grading system for fish sauces, first-tapping, or first-pressing sauces are the most sought after. Some top brands are beginning to adopt the "Extra Virgin" designation and tout more artisan processes. Second-pass or volume sauces are easily identified as they have a thin, very watery consistency.
Southeast Asian fish sauce is often made from anchovies, salt, and water, and is intensely flavoured. Anchovies and salt are arranged in wooden barrels to ferment and are slowly pressed, yielding the salty, fishy liquid. The salt extracts the liquid via osmosis.
Southeast Asians generally use fish sauce as a cooking sauce. However, there is a sweet and sour version of this sauce which is used more commonly as a dipping sauce (see nước chấm).
The Indonesian semi-solid fish paste or fermented krill terasi, the Cambodian prahok and the Malay fermented krill brick belacan or budu from liquid anchovies are other popular variations of fish sauces.
The similar Philippine version common to Indochina is called patis. Patis, a by-product of bagoong, is nearly always cooked prior to consumption, even when used as an accent to salads or other raw dishes. Patis is also used as an ingredient in cooked dishes, including a rice porridge called arroz caldo, and as a condiment for fried fish. Patis is also used in place of table salt in meals to enhance the flavor of the food, where it can either be dashed from a dispensing bottle onto the food, or poured into a saucer and mixed with calamansi and used as a dipping sauce.
Similar condiments from Thailand and Burma are called nam pla (น้ำปลา) and ngan bya yay (ငံပြာရည်), respectively. In Lao/Isan, it is called nam pa, but a chunkier, more aromatic version known as padaek is also used. Similar to padaek is pla ra used in Thai cuisine. In Cambodia, fish sauce is known as teuk trei (ទឹកត្រី), of which there are a variety of sauces using fish sauce as a base.
In Thai cuisine, fish sauce is used both in cooking and also served at the table for use as a condiment, for instance in noodle soups. In addition, nearly every Thai meal is served with phrik nam pla as a condiment: a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and chopped bird's eye chilies. Sliced garlic is often added to this sauce.
The variety from Vietnam is called nước mắm. Two areas in Vietnam are most famous for producing fish sauce: Phú Quốc and Phan Thiết. Popular brands in the US include Mega Chef, Red Boat, 3 Crabs, Golden Boy, and Hòn Phan Thiết.
Vietnamese fish sauces are made with only two ingredients: anchovies and salt. They do not have any additives like sugar, hydrolyzed protein, or preservatives. Vietnamese prefer sauces without a strong smell, and transparent with a deep golden amber color. "First press" fish sauce, meaning the sauce is bottled from the first time the fermenting barrels are drained, also indicates quality. Lastly, when measuring the nitrogen level of fish sauces (N), most fish sauce on the market falls within the mid 20N range. Anything over 30N is considered high-grade, and 40N is optimal.
Nước chấm is a Vietnamese prepared fish sauce that is savory, lightly sweet and salty tasting, and can be sour and spicy if lime and chili peppers are added. The main components are fish sauce, water, and sugar. In Vietnam, there is a popular food item called mắm, which is made the same way as fish sauce, except that both the fish and the liquid extract, not just the liquid, are kept. Mắm is also fermented for a shorter period than fish sauce. Mắm is either eaten as is (uncooked), or cooked in soups or stir-fries.
In January 2016, the Institute of Food Technologists published a study asserting that the "Vietnamese fish sauce added to chicken broth, tomato sauce and coconut curry reduced the amount of sodium chloride by 10-25 percent while still maintaining the perceived deliciousness, saltiness and overall flavor intensity."
In China, fish sauce is called yúlù (Chinese: 鱼露, literally "fish dew") and is native to the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian.
In Japan, fish sauce variations are used as a seasoning of local specialties. Ishiru in the Noto Peninsula is made from sardine and squid. Shottsuru of Akita Prefecture is mainly made from sailfin sandfish. Ikanago shoyu of Kagawa Prefecture is made from sand lance. They are often reserved for the preparation of nabemono.
In Korea, fish sauce is called eojang (Korean: 어장). Across the Korean Peninsula, aekjeot (Korean: 액젓, literally "liquid jeotgal"), a type of eojang usually made of fermented myeolchi (anchovy) or kkanari (sand lance), is used as a crucial ingredient in many types of kimchi, both for taste and fermentation.
Colatura di Alici is an Italian fish sauce.
Worcestershire sauce contains fermented anchovies among other ingredients.
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- Phu Quoc fish sauce guide from PhuQuocIslandGuide.com
- Making Vietnamese prepared fish sauce dipping sauce (nước chấm) from HungryHuy.com