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Feb 20, 2011 05:15 PM

Fish sauce

I'm trying to do more Southeast Asian cooking, but getting my head around the ingredients is tough. In his book Thai Food, David Thompson has recipes that call for both "fish sauce" and "fermented fish sauce." But when I shop at Thai and Vietnamese stores, I don't know how to distinguish between the two. All I see are different brands of of black stuff labeled "fish sauce." Help!

Also, feel free to recommend your favorite brands.

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  1. I've never really heard of "non-fermented" fish sauce. Fish sauce requires fermentation to be made. So, not sure that there can be such a thing as "non-fermented" fish sauce.

    That said, my favorite brands of traditional (ie fermented) fish sauce are Tra Chang or Golden Boy.

    8 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Thompson distinguishes between nahm pla raa (fermented fish sauce) and nahm pla (regular fish sauce). He calls nahm pla raa "the robust precursor of fish sauce," which is puzzling to me. (Aside: I don't really recommend his book because of issues like this.)

      1. re: sushigirlie

        Maybe by "nahm pla" he means ground dried fish?

        1. re: sushigirlie

          Could he be making a distinction between the 'regular' clear, brownish liquid, and the gray, cloudy kind that is only used in cooking? Bizarre Foods visited a lady in Thailand who made her sauce from salted fish stomachs, which were packed directly into bottles. To taste it he had to take a bottle to the restaurant stall next door.

          1. re: paulj

            All I know is what I told you.

            At the Vietnamese/Thai store today, I saw lots of jars of gray cloudy stuff that looked like a fish paste but was labeled "fish sauce." There seemed to be a variety of different jars made from different fishes (or perhaps parts of fishes), and they were sourced out of Vietnam.

            1. re: sushigirlie

              I've seen that, I don't think it's what most people think of as fish sauce.

            2. re: paulj

              Based on a few web sources, I've concluded that "fermented fish sauce" refers to something like this:


              1. re: sushigirlie

                I believe you hit the nail on the head. I've also seen this called fish paste, though it is considerably more liquid and would not be the type of paste to hold up in a quenelle.

                1. re: sushigirlie

                  Oh wow- as an aquarist it surprises me that they're using chocolate gouramis for sauce (I knew several people whe looked long and hard for live chocolate gouramis for their brackish water aquariums). Interesting.

                  Or is it a different kind? Osphranemus gourami, maybe?

          2. i cook out of DT's books all the time and adore him and think he's one of the real titans of Thai food, however, he's also perfectionist weirdo in the nicest possible way. I went to a cooking class of his where he pronounced that Thai curries made with tinned coconut milk tasted 'sad and limp.'

            I would argue that his books are really the final word in home Thai cooking, and superior to anything on the market, but accessibility is not his stock in trade.

            I'm sure if you spent your life immersed in Thai food cultures and lived in Bangkok or Chaing Mai sourcing your pantry from the bustling food markets you would learn to appreciate the difference between the dozens of varieties of fish sauce available to you and their intricacies and subtle differences in dishes and preparations. I don't, you don't, we have jobs, we cook Thai because we enjoy it. Just use plain fish sauce, you'll never know the difference.

            I like Squid Brand Fish Sauce.

            1. Seems to me saying "fermented fish sauce" is like saying "churned butter" or maybe "frozen ice cream." It's a wordy way to say the same thing. Fish sauce is fermented by definition, unless there is some imitation version floating around somewhere that I don't know about. Just go get a good bottle like any of those brands others have mentioned and go for it. Be happy--don't worry.

              5 Replies
              1. re: johnb

                I get that fish sauce is fermented. However, there's a significant difference between fish sauce and what David Thompson calls "fermented fish sauce," I've learned. It's not just David Thompson who draws the distinction. Look at this recipe, for example:


                After lots of research, I've concluded that the distinction one should draw is between "nam pla"--the well-known bottles of fish sauce--and "pla ra"--the less well-known jars of stronger, more paste-like fermented fish.

                As for how "nam pla" and "pla ra" are made, I'd be interested in some good links on the subject, if there are any.

                1. re: sushigirlie

                  I suppose Mr. Thompson would then do us a favor by giving the pasty version a different name, since all fish sauce, clear or otherwise, is fermented.

                  Since you brought this up I am reminded that indeed I once had a bottle of fish sauce that was, in fact, pasty. It was a gray-brown color, like the stuff in the video linked to your recipe, and very strong smelling. I never could figure out anything to do with it, and finally tossed it when the stuff began to ooze out of the very cheap plastic top. Perhaps that was what you're talking about. I must say I have not felt any urge to replace it.

                  1. re: johnb

                    Could it be that the Thai (or Vietnamese) names make the distinction? Have you found a source that tries to give literal translations for 'nam pla' and 'pla ra'?

                    Via an online translator 'nam pla' is composed of 'water/liquid fish'
                    'pla ra' 'fish fermented/pickled fish'

                    Looks like Thompson is taking his clue from Thai. We may be getting hung up over the fact that the clear liquid is also based on fermented fish. But in Thai, it appears that the important distinction is that it is a liquid derived from fish, as opposed to being the fermented fish itself.

                    1. re: paulj

                      That's an interesting interpretation. The bottled stuff I saw had no chunks (of fish) in it, however. It was just a thicker, pasty liquid. The stuff in the video seems to be the pasty liquid along with some chunks. Perhaps the normal clear version of fish sauce is off the top and filtered, while the pasty version is from the bottom of the barrel, available either smooth or chunky?

                      I looked in Bruce Cost's book "Asian Ingredients"--he alludes to such a distinction, but does not state unequivocally that there are two such versions.

                    2. re: johnb

                      I bought some and used it in a bamboo salad. It tastes good. I wasn't put off by the smell. It smells a little bit like a stinky cheese. I've probably eaten it dozens of times in Thai and Lao dishes without knowing it.

                2. Hi.
                  I'm having the same problem. I've tried Google (which only shows pictures of dried or decomposing fish) and the shelves of my local viet-/thai-stores. And even though there are lots bottles containing decomposing brown gunk, none of them are labeled Pla Raa.
                  I wish DT would clarify a bit about this. David? If you're out there...
                  When it comes to "regular" fish sauce, I find the Vietnamese brands superior to the Thai brands. If you find a brand named "Three Crabs" in your local store you've hit the jack pot.
                  And it's not just marginally better than most other brands. Your taste buds are pretty dead if you don't notice the different when compared to industry brands.
                  It's sweeter, more fragrant, and so good it even got it's own copycat brands with similar looking labels.

                  1. I can see why people are intrigued.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Grunde

                      Hi Sushigirlie,

                      My 2 cents! Fish sauce, for us simpletons, is nam pla: nam = water, pla = fishies!

                      Generally, this is made from salt-water fish like anchovies, packed with salt, and left to ferment. The amino-acid rich brine is drained off, hopefully aged some, and it is a clear gold-brown liquid.

                      Nam Pla raa is better known as Pla ra or padek, a product identified with Lao cooking and the closely related peoples of the Thai north-east, which is termed ISSAN, after the Sanskrit word for north-east, iishaana.

                      Padek is made by salting various freshwater fishes. Ricefield crabs also are preserved in a similar manner and pounded into Laotian fresh "salads". Unfortunately, some parasites sometimes survive this salting process in both the padek and the crabs.

                      The Centers for Disease Control at Atlants, GA, advise us to NOT consume RAW padek or the raw preserved crab in any form.

                      Fortunately, PADEK can be made safe for cooking Lao/Issan food in one of the 2 following ways.

                      1. The raw padek looks like grayish-black liquidy clay. It may or may not contain fish bones. The Cambodian equivalent is PRAHOK, and often may be called SIEM RIEP fish in the English brand names. Anyway, all of this can be mashed up with water and very gently simmered. You then decant the supernatant. It is now safe.

                      Of course, raw padek can be mashed and strained and used in Lao stews that are brought to boil for a while, without this preliminary treatment.

                      2. The second way to treat padek to to cook it very carefully until it is nearly dry, almost pan-roasted. This is called OR PADEK. It concentrates flavors and assures your neighbors that you are indeed an expert Lao chef!!!