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What is Fish Sauce?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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Fish sauce is a condiment made from fermented fish. There are a number of different types in use around the world, made in a range of ways from an assortment of species. The condiment is most closely associated with Asian cuisine, since a number of Asian nations use it extensively. It also appears in the West, however, and the sauce has a very long history.

The base of fish sauce is, naturally, fish. Some producers use salt-cured fish, while others use fresh fish, dried fish, or cooked fish. Anchovies are a common choice, but other species may be used as well, and some recipes actually call only for the entrails of the fish, while others use whole ones. The fish is packed in barrels with or without an assortment of spices, and salt is added as well. It is then allowed to ferment, resulting in a pale brown liquid that smells quite intense and imparts a rich, salty flavor to the dishes it is added to.

The roots of fish sauce in Asia are ancient, and the condiment has worked its way into pride of place on the condiment shelf in many countries. It may be called nuoc mam, nam pla, patis, or bagoong monamon, depending on the nation. Asian cuisine also includes a related family of fermented fish pastes and seasonings. This product may be added to dipping sauces, included in the seasoning for stir fries, and sprinkled into dressings for salads and meats. Depending on the nation, it may be used almost like flavored salt or soy sauce, since the combination of salt and fermented fish packs quite a flavor.

In the West, this condiment has been manufactured for thousands of years, although it has evolved slightly away from truly fermented fish. The first example was garum, a seasoning made by the Romans from anchovies and an assortment of other caught fishes. Garum was a crucial ingredient in Roman cooking, and it was carried all over the Roman empire. A modern descendant of garum is Worcestershire sauce, a popular British condiment.

Straight fish sauce tends to be overwhelmingly strong and salty. Usually, it is added to dishes in moderation and cut with ingredients like citrus juice and sugar. The savory flavor pairs well with a wide assortment of ingredients, especially in Asian cuisine, which is designed to take advantage of the unique taste. Many Asian markets stock an assortment of these sauces, and some Western stores do as well, typically in the Asian ingredients section.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon148923 — On Feb 02, 2011

There is vegetarian "fish sauce" available at many Asian markets. Just ask for it if you don't see it on the shelf.

By Alchemy — On Jul 19, 2010

@ GiraffeEars- Soy sauce is probably the best vegetarian substitute for fish sauce. You should probably use the low sodium kind if you are using it as an equal parts substitute. Soy sauce is made from fermenting soybeans, so it has some of the same flavor characteristics of fish sauce. You could add a little rice wine vinegar or Mirin to the soy sauce to give the flavor a little more depth.

By GiraffeEars — On Jul 19, 2010

Is there a fish sauce substitute? I am a vegetarian, and I cannot bring myself to eat dishes made with fish sauce. I do love the smell of things like Pad Thai and other Thai food though.

By Georgesplane — On Jul 19, 2010

My favorite fish Sauce recipe is Pad Thai. The combination of fish sauce, lime, lemon grass, ginger, garlic, and chilies makes for a very intense flavor. When made correctly there is virtually no sauce, rather a flavorful and chewy mix of rice noodles, seafood, vegetables, and tofu noodles seasoned to perfection. The meal is very light, and the toasted peanuts tossed in at the end add a nice texture to the dish.

Pad Thai is always a big hit, and the mix of flavors masks most of the fishiness of the fish sauce. I have some fussy eaters in my household, but most will eat the Pad Thai. Pad Thai is easy to make, and you can customize the ingredient list to suit your taste or diet.

By kusinero — On Mar 03, 2010

Nice and concise explanation of fish sauce.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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