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Fish Sauce???????

I keep reading recipes that call for a little splash of fish sauce...recipes that I cannot imagine would be enhanced by the taste of fish. What exactly is fish sauce? Actual reduction of fish stock? And how does it enhance dishes without making them taste fishy??

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  1. It's made, mainly in southeast Asia from, yes, fermented fish (I understand anchovies are often used for this). It's sold in Asian food markets and does have a rather repugnant odour.

    But added in judicious quantities to some Asian dishes, and cooked, the fishy smell is no longer noticeable, and the flavour enhanced. Try it, you may like it!

    6 Replies
    1. re: ekammin

      It REEKS if you smell it right out of the jar! but it will give you great depth of flavor, and the dead fish aspect is not present in the finished dish.

      1. re: coney with everything

        I don't find the odor repulsive at all. I like it and use it a lot.

          1. re: coney with everything

            I've had a bottle opened for a couple of years now, using a couple of tablespoons every so often, and I haven't noticed any changes in it. It was pretty funky to start with, though, so a little bit more wouldn't be readily apparent.

            1. re: Bat Guano

              I just started to use it last spring. Initially it smells like urine to me, but once in the dish it adds flavor that I have been unable to reproduce. The smell goes away after it has cooked for a short time.

      2. re: ekammin

        I liken the smell of it uncooked to rancid macaroni and cheese. Cooked, though, it is utterly delicious and provides a very important dimension of flavour to many SE Asian dishes.

        Note that there are a number of different kinds and they are not all interchangeable. For example, Thai fish sauce is much more pungent and salty than Vietnamese fish sauce, which I find almost mild and sweet and much less smelly. Both are fantastic when used for the appropriate purposes.

        Oh yes... it doesn't really taste like fish at all. I, as a general rule, don't like anything that comes out of water (how I wish that wasn't the case), but I love fish sauce.

      3. It's a mystery ingredient, hard to put into words. Go to a Vietnamese restaurant to try it in lots of different things -- you won't actually be tasting fish, just something special, faintly funky, addictive. Many of them are made from anchovies, I think dried in the sun. Past that, you might not really want to know -- like the old saying about sausage 'everybody loves it, nobody wants to see how it's made'
        It's not like stock at all.
        It's also very salty.
        A brilliant ingredient!

        1 Reply
        1. re: pitu

          Is it possible that it smells and taste like rancid or badly freezer burned meat?

        2. IMHO, every serious cook should have a bottle of this around. You can use it alot like soy sauce in meat, poultry and seafood dishes. You need to be a little conservative in its use as the concentrated taste (smell) and the high amounts of sodium will overwhelm a dish otherwise. In the cuisines that utilize fish sauce, they'll use it in soups, salads, and noodle dishes as well. It's normally used in conjunction with something citrusy and/or acidy, and oftentimes it is combined with soy sauce as well.

          It really hits the umami taste factor. Once the fish sauce has been sauteed, roasted, or grilled in a dish, the fishiness for the most part becomes far less noticeable and a particular savory funkiness results.

          Most folks use the Thai-style fish sauces but versions from the Philippines and Viet Nam (and I'm sure elsewhere) are available at many Asian markets as well.

          1. Fish sauce just mysteriously makes a dish tast Thai. One of my favorite ways to use lots basil without also eating lots of olive oil is to stir fry chicken with green chiles, basil, parsley, fish sauce, and a lime squeezed over it. That's all. I use enough fish sauce to make it as salty as I want, then I stop.

            14 Replies
            1. re: wearybashful

              I beg to differ. It will make a Thai dish taste "Thai," but I use fish sauce (and soy sauce) in all kinds of things and it enhances their flavor but does NOT make them taste "Thai" at all.

              1. re: C. Hamster

                can someone recommend a good brand to buy? I love the stuff but always get confused in the Oriental Market on which one to buy.
                It's funny because when I have taken folks for Vietnamese and don't tell them what the sauce is, they love it. If they know what it is they tend to not like it so much. It's definitely a mental block for some people.

                1. re: rhnault

                  Ming Tsai uses the brand with the 3 crabs on it, and it is definitely good. Ba Con Cua is the actual brand name, I believe, but really, just look for the tall bottle with the pink & white label with 3 crabs on it.

                  That being said, my mother considers this her "table" fish sauce, which means that when a [fish] dipping sauce is called for, this is what she uses. For the purposes of just a splash here or there when cooking, she uses an bottle with an octopus (or squid) on it. I believe the name is Nuoc Mam Con Muc, but really, look for the bottle with the green & white label with a green cap.

                    1. re: Ali

                      I knew a guy so enamored with Squid brand fish sauce he had the label tattooed on his arm.

                      1. re: mordacity

                        I've since moved from Squid to Golden Boy. Not only is it a better fish sauce it would make for a better tattoo.

                      2. re: Ali

                        I went to the local Asian market and asked what was the best Fish sauce they also recommended 3 crabs. I also saw a documentary about how it is made and how to grade it and they were saying that the highest grades are made by 3 crabs,,,, so there ya go. I Love it!

                      3. re: rhnault

                        I have tasted many and even done head to head taste tests. There isn't a huge difference, IMO, between the main brands. I usually use 3 Crabs and Squid.

                        1. re: rhnault

                          My personal preference is for Tiparos. I've tried a few others but none have been as balanced as Tiparos in my opinion.

                          1. re: rhnault

                            a friend of mine who is vietnamese recommens the brand with three crabs on the label. its very light in colour.
                            i hear if the sauce gets darker its going bad, is this true?

                            1. re: redroses

                              It's possible. The salt starts to fall out of solution once the bottle has been opened and has sat for a while. Less salt in the solution might lead to something going a bit off.

                              1. re: bulavinaka

                                In my experience fish sauce doesn't ever go off. If you have it sitting around too long the salt may crystallizes because some of the liquid evaporates but I can't imagine how fish sauce could ever become less salty.

                            2. re: rhnault

                              There is a yearly competition (IIRC) in Thailand where a prize is awarded for the best fish sauce. These certificates are usually prominently displayed on the bottles of fish sauce of the victors. I've found that you can't go wrong buying a brand displaying one or more of these prizes. They do tend to be stronger in flavour and smell, though, IME, than the non-award winning brands.

                        2. Think of it as a very rough equivalent of a SE Asian version of Worcestershire sauce.

                          Worcestershire sauce is generally made with anchovies, but does not taste "fishy".

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            That's a very good comparison. I use worcestershire sauce every now and then when I want a little tang, but don't want a citrusy taste in my food. Similarly fish sauce gives me a salty and savory taste that's hard to identify, and hard to copy. FYI, a large part of the sauce in pad thai is made of fish sauce, yet that doesn't taste like fish.

                            1. re: JungMann

                              A large component of Worcestershire sauce is Tamarind according to "Bobby Flay"

                            2. re: ipsedixit

                              Great analogy. Fish sauce is also used in Yucatecan Coastal cuisine. I first encountered it in the town of Valladolid where it marinated the Coconut shrimp. As I did more research and learned that it was an ancient, regional sauce... I was also surprised to learn that it gets widely used throughout the Riviera Maya region in a wide variety of dishes including the Butterflied grilled chickens that everyone who eats at down home places in Tulum etc., comes back raving about.

                              Like Worcestire sauce its a magic concoction that lifts basic flavors when used properly.

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                EN - what do they call the fish sauce there?

                                1. re: kare_raisu

                                  I wish I knew.... I saw it at the mercado in Valladolid... and it had a Mayan name... started with a K ____ chay. I should have purchased it =(

                              2. re: ipsedixit

                                Good point, but the comparison should be the other way around.

                                Worcestershire sauce was a riff off of the asian fish sauce tradition (as was the original iteration of catsup, by the way)