In the kitchens of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and beyond, there is one ingredient cooks can’t do without: fish sauce. Love it or loathe it, fish sauce adds authentic Asian flavour to a range of dishes. It pops up in Vietnamese dipping sauces, Thai salads and Malaccan specialties in Malaysia, but you might be surprised to learn that versions of fish sauce exist in Europe too, including Italy, Greece and France, plus a household name in the UK.
Fish sauce is a clear golden to brown liquid that’s extracted through a process of prolonged salting and fermentation. For authentic fish sauce, the fish (often anchovies, occasionally shrimp) must be fresh, salted just minutes after leaving the sea and fermented in traditional wooden barrels. After more than a year, the fish sauce is filtered, and bottled, creating the finest grade of fish sauce, akin to extra virgin olive oil.
Although it’s now a signature ingredient across Southeast Asia, fish sauce dates back to Roman times, when a flavouring liquid made from fish innards and salt was left to ferment in vats called garum. The decline of the Roman Empire also saw a decline in the use and production of garum, due to high taxes on salt and the havoc of coastal industries waged by pirates at the time, until it became virtually unknown in its former home.
Vietnam: nuoc mam is found in every kitchen in Vietnam. Try the Poonsin brand of fish sauce.
Thailand: nam pla is the signature fish sauce of Thailand. Top Thai examples include Squid Brand and Tiparos Fish Sauce.
Malaysia: cincalok is a Malaccan specialty made of fermented shrimp, usually served as a dipping sauce with chilli, shallot and lime juice.
Philippines: bangoong is a funky condiment made by fermenting shrimp, anchovies or fish.
Italy: Colatura di Alici is a golden-hued fermented anchovy sauce from a fishing village in Campania.
UK: We wager you’ll have a bottle of this one tucked at the back of your fridge – Worcestershire sauce is the UK’s very own anchovy-based fish sauce.
The traditional production method for fish sauce, called nam pla in Thailand and nuoc mam in Vietnam, is essentially the same all over Southeast Asia. But fish sauce devotees, believe there are some differences between Thai and Vietnamese fish sauce:
•The Thai nam pla tends to be saltier, denser in flavor and often darker in colour than its Vietnamese counterpart.
•When using Thai fish sauce in Vietnamese dishes, you’ll often find the saltiness overwhelms the finer flavours of aromatic ingredients like herbs, ginger and garlic. When using Vietnamese fish sauce in Thai dishes, you might find they don’t have the robustness and depth of flavour to balance the richer components of a dish, such as the coconut cream, meat or spices.
For more on Asian staples, read our guide to traditional Vietnamese ingredients or become a pantry pro with 10 essential Asian ingredients.
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