Fish sauce differences (Thai, Vietnamese, Philipino etc)?
What's the difference (if any) between the various Asian fish sauces?
Last night I made a spareribs dish from my new Vietnamese cookbook that called for Vietnamese fish sauce. I used Thai fish sauce instead and the result smelled like damp socks. I thought I liked Vietnamese food until last night. Was I remiss in my substitution? Or did I just find a nasty bottle? Or the brand I found is bad? Any brands to avoid or to choose?
I've noticed quite a lot of people saying Three Crabs is the greatest fish sauce, but I'm not so sure. It does not appear to be a naturally fermented fish sauce but is, rather, a flavor-enhanced, processed food product (made in Hong Kong). Fish sauce is made by a fairly complicated and time-consuming process (prolonged salting and fermentation of small schooling fish from Gulf of Thailand and S China Sea). There are ways to cut corners so you'll find a variation in quality. Having said that, I know the following brands are good (with caveat, read on):
All of those are made in Thailand using the proper raw materials and process. There are other good brands as well. My Thai wife says Squid is the most subtle, slightly sweet fish sauce. Her friend likes a slightly stronger flavor, and uses Tiparos. There is going to be not only personal preference involved, but some national pride as well. My wife would never say that a Philippine or Vietnamese fish sauce is better than Thai :)
What you find in fish sauce is that once bottled there is basically a one year window to use it before the color starts to darken and the fishy smell becomes more prominent (less desirable). Light color and subtle fish aroma is best. If you have a bottle of Tiparos brand, which displays the manufacture date on the label, and it was made in January 2003, buy it and you will certainly enjoy. If the bottle sits in your cabinet for a year, it's time to go buy a new bottle because if you do a comparison you'll notice a difference. Watch out for markets that don't specialize in Thai/Vietnamese cooking. They may take 2 years to sell 12 cases, so there is old stock on the shelf. You want to avoid buying fish sauce in a market less-traveled by Thai/Viet folks. I think sometimes a person will say that a particular fish sauce is no good, only because it was once good but sat for a long time and lost it's charm.