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Fish Sauce, do you find it overpowering?

  • r

I bought Three Crabs fish sauce and find it extremely strong. I see some recipes that call a tablespoon or more of the stuff and I just can't bring myself to put that much into the recipe. Does the super strong taste mellow out when mixed with other ingredients? I always scared I'm going to ruin a batch of food and have it end up tasting like fish sauce. The recipe I'm pondering now is this one:


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  1. I love it, but my boyfriend not so much so I often have to bring it to the table to use as added seasoning. I wouldn't say a tablespoon is that much, especial if you are cooking it down but it can depend on the other flavours. It's used instead of salt in a lot of far eastern cooking, so if there is salt I would go easy on the seasoning.

    That recipe sounds great - I do love a banh mi!

    4 Replies
    1. re: pj26

      Thanks. Keep in mind my "extremely strong" reaction is to tasting the fish sauce straight from the bottle so maybe I'm not giving it a fair chance.

      1. re: Rick

        Straight up, fish sauce can be an extremely strong flavor for someone not used to it. But bear in mind that heat mellows the flavor and smell, leaving behind a mouthfilling umami instead. Even when used raw as a dipping sauce, you usually find fish sauce mixed with citrus or vinegar and lots of herbs and seasonings.

        1. re: Rick

          Salt is pretty strong on its own, too. I'm not sure of the aversion to following a recipe using a small amount of a widely used ingredient.

        2. re: pj26

          That specific banh mi recipe is one of my favourite things - ever!! I make it as written, except I use mint instead of basil as I prefer the taste. I also leave out the jalapeños and sprinkle on some fresh bird eye peppers. Yum!!!

        3. Do you not like the taste or the smell? Three Crabs is considered 'premium' fish sauce. If you don't like the taste, then that's a major issue when making authentic Thai, Vietnamese, and other SE Asian recipes. It will blend in with all of the other ingredients in that recipe and the 'death smell' goes away. There are vegetarian 'fish sauce' substitutes out there. Don't know how they taste, probably similar to soy sauce.... Hang in there with the real stuff and make the recipe, I bet you're going to like it.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Maggie19

            It's the taste, it just tastes extremely fishy. This is my first every bottle of fish sauce so I wasn't sure what to expect. One recipe we have, a cold asian chicken salad, calls for 3 tablespoons of fish sauce and 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, just seems to be way to much fish sauce for the relatively small amount of salad the recipe makes.

            1. re: Rick

              Any recipes with 3 tbls of fish sauce and soy sauce better be huge and contain tons of other ingredients because thats an awfully salty starting point.

              I love fish sauce, but contrary to what other people are saying, the only times I get offended by it are in cooked preparations. Sometimes a cooked dish has fish sauce added to it at the last minute and it is pungently salty and has a fishy aftertaste. This sort of thing happens at bad Thai or Vietnamese places. I always find it delicious when its used uncooked as part of a dipping sauce or marinade with sweet, spicy, and sour flavors to mingle with it.

            2. re: Maggie19

              I've been using Squid brand, and while the tase does help in the dishes where it's called for, the stench of year-old gym socks makes me want to cook those dishes less. I always feel like I've just ruined a good thing for about 3-5 minutes after adding. And god forbid is my wife or kid gets a whiff, because based on that alone they will refuse to eat the dish.

              Is Squid a decent brand?

              1. re: KevinKS

                I think Squid is a pretty good brand - it's what they sell in all the Vietnamese supermarkets here in London and I have been using it for years.

                1. re: pj26

                  I tried Squid once and thought it was terrible. I've heard that the premium version is not bad, but I don't remember which I had.

                  My brand of choice is Tra Chang. That plus a few chillies (sometimes also garlic, lime and sugar) is always on my table when I cook Thai. I love it spooned over rice.

            3. Try it in a stir fry or something first - something where it is added near the end of cooking. Add it in little bits to your taste. The overwhelming funk of it is mellowed by other ingredients. It is kinda meant to be standing up to other strong tasting ingredients.

              A tablespoon in that recipe sounds reasonable to me, but that's assuming one likes the effect of fish sauce in the first place. Your first experiments with it might be better if they were dishes where you could add it to taste.

              1 Reply
              1. re: cowboyardee

                Indeed. The first time I used fish sauce was in a recipe for tamarind shrimp. I came back from the Vietnamese grocery with all of these mystery-boxes covered in foreign characters. I had a Christmas joy in opening and tasting all of the new things. The tamarind was hideous and sticky, but surprisingly good. I smelled the fish sauce, frowned, hesitated, took sip, and spat. I think I would have cried if I ever got fish sauce for Christmas as a child. Only with great hesitancy did a spoonful of that foul mystery go into the dish.

                The final dish ended up tasting/smelling nothing like fish sauce, and it took me while to get a feel for what kind of effect fish sauce would have on a recipe.

              2. I see you are eating it straight from the bottle. Not traditional.... do try it in some cooked foods before giving up. From what I have read, that is how it is intended to be used.

                Oh.... and much like anchovies, there is nothing wrong with using fish sauce to YOUR taste. That is why we cook at home, right?

                1. You're not nuts. I don't like fish sauce straight, either, and when I cook with it, I always use less than called for and the food usually comes out fine. Any food that doesn't get eaten the first day (this includes take-out Thai as well as homemade) also gets sent home with someone else or pitched, because the fish sauce flavor seems to become more pronounced on the second day.

                  Lots of us find it too strong, but it's one of those things you really can't leave out of a recipe that calls for it, so just use less, then add a bit more if necessary.

                  1. The brand you've bought is considered the best of fish sauce. However, with my SE Asian background I still find fishsauce very offensive. I substitute most of my recipe with the light soy sauce when I'm able. I'm not giving anyone a plug for their business but Healthy Boy Brand Soy Sauce with Mushroom is the brand that I use (most asian grocer carry them). I use fishsauce only in recipe that can't be substitute with soy sauce like papaya salads. I think it's OK for substitute your case (the Ban Mi recipe). Good luck & happy cooking!

                    1. From the recipe, 1 T of fish sauce to 1 lb of ground pork can be too much to someone who isn't use to fish sauce.

                      Yes, it does mellow when mixed with other stuff, but still in noticeable. However, on the upside, you're not eating the meatballs as an entree. The pork patty will be nestled amongst other strong flavored ingredients.

                      Too much fish sauce won't bother me so 1T sounds okay to me and would adjust after following the recipe.

                      Maybe you're a 2 teaspoon type of guy???

                      1. Yes it will mellow with cooking.

                        But 3 Crabs may be a too pungent brand for you. I tried a bottle of it, and went back to the brand that I started with, Lucky. I also have a small bottle of Golden Boy which I use when I want something a little stronger, but mostly I use Lucky.

                        1. I think that's a reasonable amount for a pound of ground pork. I think you'll find the character of it changes when it caramelizes with the fat and sugar in the cooking process. It definitely won't taste as pungent cooked in this way as it does straight out of the bottle.

                          1. Judging fish sauce taste straight from the bottle is like judging Worcestershire sauce straight up. It just has nothing to do with how it's actually used. Some preparations that have the highest percentage of uncooked fish sauce are the Vietnamese and Thai dipping sauces, where you might have equal parts of fish sauce and sugar, laced with peppers, ginger, and garlic, etc. That's good stuff. In cooked preparations, fish sauce virtually disappears in its raw aspect and emerges as a subtle flavor addition--awesome! (I use it this way to substitute for anchovy in Italian red sauces and the like).

                            1. I don't find it overpowering at all, and have eaten many a quick lunch of nothing but jasmine rice drizzled with plenty of prik nam pla, which is 2 parts fish sauce to 1 part minced bird chiles. Stuff is terribly addictive. Along with shrimp paste, fish sauce adds a certain funk essential to authenticity in lots of SE Asian cooking.

                              I understand it can be an acquired taste for some though, much like blue cheese for the unexposed. That said, a tablespoon is really nothing at all for a pound of ground meat. I think you can also rest assured that Bon Appetit, given it's audience, is highly unlikely to put together a recipe that will offend the sensibilities of a moderately adventurous eater. Give it a shot.

                              Edit: If you're really worried, you could always do the old pate/meatloaf trick. Go easy on the fish sauce at first, mix well, and fry up a little marble-sized wad on it's own---keeping in mind of course how much less pronounced the flavors will be when the meatball is placed on a nice baguette piled high with fresh herbs and veggies and bird chiles.

                              1. Rick,

                                In that case, cut it in half and see how you like it. To answer your question directly, the super strong taste does get diminished when mixed with other ingredients.

                                1. People's first reaction to straight fish sauce is often negative it is pungent straight from the bottle. I have rarely met anyone who does not like at least one of the cuisines that use fish sauce as a staple, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, Burmese.......Etc. When diluted in a table sauce or added to a cooked dish a lot of the "pungency" is lost leaving a haunting flavor and lots of umami.
                                  Three crabs brand is good by by no means super strong, it diluted with water and has added salt and sweetener . It is fine for table sauces and cooking. For a higher quality try Red Boat http://redboatfishsauce.com/ it has a stronger flavor that is slightly sweeter and more complex.
                                  Go ahead and do the recipe as stated it is from Epicurious so I doubt that it will be overpowering at all. I think that you will find that you like it fine.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: chefj

                                    Check this out from chefj's link to see if it is available near you, good stuff EVFS. Take that RR.

                                    Sorry Rick so far only in California and Arizona, Pennsylvania will have to wait.

                                  2. I really like normal fish sauce in certain types of food, but the first time my dad tried to make something with fish sauce he purchased this brown opaque stuff which is much stronger tasting. When we tried the recipe using that, we wondered what the person who wrote the recipe was smoking! When we found the more standard fish sauce we understood how delicious it is, although we don't use it enough.

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: celesul

                                      Celesul, I wonder if your dad got oyster sauce that first time instead of fish sauce.

                                      Rick, have you eaten Vietnamese food before? You've probably had fish sauce in the dishes you ordered. Did you order anything that came with a little bowl of clear dipping sauce, usually with a few shreds of carrot in it, like for dipping egg rolls? If you've tried that and liked it, then you've had fish sauce for sure.

                                      1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                                        Karen, he didn't get oyster sauce. It was a paler brown. He got it at a big asian market, which opens up a lot of possibilities. I think it was probably mam loc xay, which is snakehead fish sauce. It's a very different texture! It's not a liquid.

                                        1. re: celesul

                                          If íts not a liquid, it's MOS DEF not fish sauce!!! :)

                                          1. re: aqn

                                            Could there be a miss understanding about what is meant by 'liquid'. The fish sauce being discussed in this thread is a clear brown liquid, which has been drawn off the fermenting fish with a siphon and filtered. Celesul may be referring to a cloudy liquid, which may still have pieces of fish or fish innards. David Thompson translates the Thai 'pla ra' as 'fermented fish sauce'.

                                            has a picture of a jar of Vietnamese snakehead fish sauce.

                                            We discussed these two types of 'fish sauce' at:

                                            Some of these countries also use a 'shrimp paste'.

                                            1. re: paulj

                                              Thanks for the link to the thread! The standard fish sauce (which is quite tasty) is a clear liquid, and clearly the topic of the thread. Then there's the other stuff which is also generally labeled fish sauce and is much much stronger and confusing the two is a bit of a problem.

                                    2. Chances are, Rick, you just don't like fish sauce.

                                      Nothing wrong with that. It's certainly not for everyone.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        And it also depends on how you use it. I think it adds an interesting dimension to dishes prepared with it, but no recipe is carved in stone. It may be a matter of just using less...just enough to get a hint of the essence, but not enough to overpower.

                                        But ipsedixit is spot on...it all boils down to personal taste.
                                        In the beer forums, people wax rhapsodic about Belgian beers. I'm a lover of good beer and have been since the time years ago when really good beer was harder to find. But to me the Belgian stuff just tastes like beer that's gone bad. And I keep trying new ones on recommendations, and get pretty much the same result.
                                        Doesn't mean they're not good products, they're just not to my taste.

                                      2. I think it can get overpowering really fast if not used with caution but its also one of those ingredients that you really miss if you leave it out. You can't always tell *exactly* what is missing but you definately notice that something is. Well, to me anyhow!

                                        1. I'm vietnamese and it's rarely used on it's own. Once it's used in a recipe, or combined with lime juice, water and sugar, its divine. I'd never liked the taste on it's own, it's deceiving out of the bottle.

                                          Have you ever had blended nuoc cham or fish sauce at a Vietnamese restaurant, it's at least 2/3 straight fish sauce. Try the recipe, the flavor will change once you start combining with other ingredients. Totally agree with the comparison to worchestershire.

                                          1. Here's an interesting comparison of various brands by an importer

                                            They think Tra Chang is the best, Tiparos most common/typical, and Three Crabs over rated in the American market.

                                            I noticed on a Gordon Ramsay Great Escapes episode in Thailand, that everyone used a fish sauce from a square plastic bottle, probably Tiparos (though Lucky comes in a similar bottle).

                                            1. Believe me when I say that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone out there who dislikes fish and seafood as much as I do. That being said, apart from seafood dishes, I am an absolute dedicated SE Asian cuisine addict, and I have been cooking Thai food for over a decade now several times a week, so I like to think I speak from some level of experience.

                                              The smell of raw fish sauce can be quite off-putting to someone not used to it, but rest assured that the taste, when cooked in a dish, changes dramatically and is absolutely essential to obtaining a traditional Thai flavour. Indeed, the transformation in taste and smell is incredible, and when I make homemade red curry for guests, a minute or so after I add the fish sauce after frying the curry paste, my guests almost always mention that suddenly, the smell has changed and become wonderful.

                                              (If this bothers you, as a personal experiment, I recommend you procure a package of belacan - a special type of shrimp paste commonly used in Nyonya Malaysian cuisine and others - and take a whiff of that raw. It is absolutely revolting, but again, when cooked into a nice Nyonya style chicken curry, it becomes absolutely transcendent.)

                                              If your brand of fish sauce is a bit overwhelming to you, I suggest you retire the bottle for now to a cupboard and instead buy some Vietnamese fish sauce, which is generally, in my experience, much milder than their Thai counterparts. This will allow you to develop a taste for fish sauce before going back to something more potent. Vietnamese brands should be easily identifiable based on the writing on the packaging.

                                              One tbsp is, IMO, a fairly conservative amount given the quantity of meat. When I make red curry using perhaps 500 mL coconut milk and a pound of chicken, I would use about three tbsp of fish sauce. Also, PLEASE, unless you are a vegetarian, do not substitute soy sauce for fish sauce. They are by no means whatsoever interchangeable and you may as well just scrap your recipe and make something else entirely.

                                              1. My feeling generally is that if you can taste the fish sauce in a completed dish, you have used too much.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Tripeler

                                                  I agree, if you can distinctly "taste" fish sauce in a dish, you've put in too much, except perhaps a fish soup. It's a great way to fortify fish chowder, for example...

                                                  However that said, three crabs is an excellent addition to so many foods. There have been times when I've used varying amounts in every course of one meal. It's a great additive to simple salad dressings. A little shake of it at the end of a stir fry is nice. A simple vegetable saute of some kind with butter and three crabs can work wonders. I occasionally soak onions in a bowl of three crabs and water before adding them to a salad or a vegetable dish (perhaps with a little sugar), for the younger member of my family who doesn't like STRONG onion flavor.

                                                  Out of the bottle? It's a little weird, and TOO rich or TOO umami for the taste buds. As others have said, it augments flavors in the right amounts, which means a few drops or small spoons. It adds an extra salty richness in reasonable amounts, which can be a wonder that may just make you glad to be alive, and hungry.

                                                2. When I first tried fish oil I was gratified to note how it improved flavor without imparting a fishy taste. I use it all the time now.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: BangorDin

                                                    Fish oil or fish sauce? They are. I believe. different.

                                                  2. Rick: did you try the Banh mi?

                                                    1. if you are scard of put the amout the recipe ask only put in halve and the rest water or fish stock

                                                      1. Just start with a tiny bit then add until it suits your taste. There's no point in tasting any fish sauce straight.....unless you're a masochist. You can't get a sense of how it enhances asian dishes without the other ingredients. IMO

                                                        2 Replies
                                                        1. re: Puffin3

                                                          "There's no point in tasting any fish sauce straight.....unless you're a masochist."

                                                          Politely but completely disagree. As had been said a zillion times, it can be an acquired taste for some. But many, many people love it. I taste fish sauce straight all the time.

                                                          1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                                                            Disagree accepted. Of course you are right. I was only speaking for myself. For 'newbies' to fish sauce tasting it straight might turn some people off.

                                                        2. The first time I tasted fish sauce straight was at a Thai restaurant.....it is as close as I have ever come to puking in public without having the flu, motion sickness, or too much booze. Pungent and rancid seem to be the best words to illustrate the sensation. Since then, I have had it as a component of Thai dishes and find it less offensive. It just seems like such a bizarre food that it might be as much of a mental block as it is a taste objection with me. Would be a good bet though to see if someone could drink a whole bottle.......