Once you hear the word “umami,” you understand — this is why steak is mmm-mmm good. But steak isn’t required. There’s another way to obtain the rich-tasting chemical at work, glutamate, that summons that intense satisfaction. 

Fill vats with fish, usually anchovies, layer them with salt, and return a year or more later. You can then pour off a fermented liquid full of glutamate that will make any dish taste meaty or umami. 

The Vietnamese call this liquid glutamate bomb nuoc mam. In Thailand, it’s nam pla. In Korea, it’s aek jeot. And Filipinos swear by patis

fish sauce lea and perrins
Anchovy-based bottled sauces are universal. The English version shares similarities with Asian varieties.

In the West, we have anchovy-based Worcestershire sauce, branded in England by pharmacists John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, who went on to form, you guessed it, Lea & Perrins. 

Those Saucy Ancient Romans 

These British pharmacists simply adopted a concept that’s been popular throughout history. Fermented fish sauce reached the height of its popularity in ancient Rome, where it was called garum and sold in many varieties, from budget to exquisite. 

In 2009 excavators working in Pompeii, the old city preserved in volcanic ash near Naples, found six urns containing charred powder. Scientists analyzed the powder and identified anchovies as well as mint, sage, thyme, oregano, and other herbs. The team used an old recipe for fermenting salted small fish with dried herbs and produced their own version modeled on the Pompei powder. You can buy this “Flor de Garum” in Spain, and it has won praise from Spanish chefs. 

The modern Italian versions are called colatura di alici, which means anchovy sauce.” 

Which Should I Buy? 

A straightforward approach is to match the fish sauce to the cuisine. If you’d like to stick to one or two of the Asian varieties, here’s a rough guide: Vietnamese nuoc mam may be lighter and sweeter, Thai nam pla saltier, and Filipino patis heavier, according to Andrea Nguyen, author of The Pho Cookbook. 

Whatever you choose, look for an amber liquid with a reddish tint. Refrigerate your fish sauce. Note that as it matures in the fridge, it will turn saltier over time. 

Products from Vietnam’s largest island, Phu Quoc, are most in demand. Red Boat, a premium brand made there, contains only anchovies and salt, while some brands add sugar and water, which you may like as it lightens and sweetens the flavor. 

fish sauce
A Thai fish sauce factory featuring wooden fermentation vats. (Stefan from Dresden, Germany, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

You’ll also see numbers from 20 percent to 60 percent that represent the protein content. For cooking, you don’t need the highest number, and those products cost more. 

Products that contain wine vinegar or garlic are used for the dipping sauce called nuoc cham that you see in little bowls in Vietnamese restaurants. 

Pailin Chongchitnant, creator of a popular YouTube channel about Thai cuisine, recommends Viet Huong (or Three Crabs) for beginners, a Thai sauce that is on the mild side. You can get more details in her video on choosing a fish sauce. 

So How Should I Use Fish Sauce? 

Simplest way: If you’re adventurous, you can use it to replace salt in any dish you’d like to make more umami. 

In an Italian Mood? 

Adding anchovy to tomato sauce is a time-honored tip. Colatura di alici, the aforementioned Italian fish sauce made from anchovies, is a delightful golden amber and produced via fermentation in chestnut barrels. It can truly elevate your puttanesca or Bolognese. 

To make it the star, try adding it to linguine, served with lemon and pistachios and toasted bread for crunch. Any shellfish will make this a full meal. 

Or blend together our high-quality tuna (canned or pouched) with colatura di alici, peeled almonds, and olive oil then serve over fusilli with vegetables for a rich summer salad. 

Could you use an Asian anchovy sauce for this Italian pasta? (Will anyone know but you?) 

A Vietnamese Touch 

Vietnamese Red Boat fish sauce offers a recipe for spicy unpeeled shrimp brightened with butter, Red Boat, cayenne, and garlic. 

Or consider it for a simple preparation of lemongrass mussels or an elegant way to serve halibut. 

Feeling Thai 

Revisit our blog post Give Thai Seafood a Try and you’ll see several meals with nam pla. 

And Don’t Forget Worcestershire! 

No Bloody Mary is complete without a dash of this pungent, salty sauce. But it’s also great in a Michelada, a spicy Mexican beer cocktail, or gazpacho, which you can turn into a festive lunch or light dinner with shrimp and avocado. 

A fish sauce can elevate all your cooking, in fact, replacing salt and adding so much umami to seafood meals that even carnivores in your midst won’t require a burger. 

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Temma Ehrenfeld has been a writer for more than 30 years. Her novel "Morgan" is available at bookstores.

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