There are many types of cuisine throughout the world, which represent a culture and its history. Each of these foods have specific ingredients that make them especially representative of that culture’s cuisine. The Italians have tomatoes, the Greeks have cucumbers or walnuts, the Argentines have chimichurri, the Spanish, olive oil and the Brazilians, black beans. Of all of the ingredients that can be found throughout Asia, there is one that makes Asian food, Asian. Fish sauce. Many of you who are lovers of this part of the world might have traveled and eaten many of their foods and are well aware of what this particular ingredient is. Others might have had many foods that included fish sauce and enjoyed them, but now are wishing they were never made aware.
I always have this on hand in my pantry. I use it in coconut curry, stir-fry, udon noodle salads, sometimes even as a substitute for anchovies in Italian dishes. I compare it to what adding just a little more salt does for your cooking. Before you serve homemade food, one always takes a bite to see that it is worthy for guests. Most of the time, all the food needs is a pinch more of salt to round out the flavors. That is fish sauce. It lifts the food, yet brings a meatiness even to vegetarian dishes.
How might I describe the, ahem, aroma, to you? Let’s say, it is the night before you are about to go on a two-week vacation (maybe to Thailand, I don’t know). You’ve gone through most of the things in your refrigerator so as not to return to any surprises. In order to keep things simple, you decide to make something light. So you head to your local fish monger and purchase some fresh salmon. After a run to the market for some vegetables, you return home, make a fabulous meal, and discard the fishy remains in your garbage can located under your kitchen sink. The next morning, you grab your suitcase, and head to the airport. Mid-flight, you might just very audibly smack your forehead, realizing that you did not take out the trash from the previous night’s salmon dinner. So what is your kitchen, or quite possibly house, going to positively reek of when you return home after two weeks? That was a redundant question. In other words, fish sauce makes canned cat food seem, well, mild. If you happen to be unfortunate enough to spill this, offensive, stuff, grab some fresh lemons and start cleaning!
Personally, I love knowing where my food is from, how it’s made and its history. Many claim that fish sauce originated in Thailand, but it is also made in China and Vietnam, where they are proud to say that their one-thousand year old tradition has sustained the rule of China, the French and the Americans, and a civil war that was a daily fight for twenty years. This pungent, yet treasured ingredient, possesses many names: nam pla in Thailand, yu lu in China, and nuoc mam in Vietnam. Regardless of origination, most fish sauce has a similar way in which it may be made. The only variable is the type of fish used, however, it is typically the smaller fishes that have very little value, such as anchovies. Sometimes mackerel or sardines are used, but they make for a more expensive fish sauce, as these types are viewed as “food fish”. It is made by first, rinsing the fish that arrive fresh from the boats. They are then drained and tossed in a heavy amount of sea salt and placed into large earthenware pots, which have been lined with more sea salt at the base. After a hefty amount of fish are added, they cover it with a bamboo mat, weighed down with rocks. The pots are then placed in a sunny location where they will remain for nine months for fermentation. The heat from direct sun will ferment the fish, eventually turning it into water. After this time, the sauce is drained through a spigot at the base of the pot. By this time, it will be very fragrant and a deep amber-red color. This method brands the fish sauce as 100-percent top grade and genuine. Other methods are used to create slightly lower grades, using heat for faster fermentation.
You can purchase premium fish sauces of 24 ounces for under $6, so really there is no reason to substitute something of lower quality. As most recipes typically use a hint of this ingredient, you will probably have the bottle of 24 ounces for quite sometime, and do not worry about shelf-life, this will sustain a significant amount of time in your pantry, years, even when it has been opened. If you have not made a habit of using this ingredient before in your Asian cooking, you will soon realize fish sauce is what has been missing.