What is Fish Sauce?

Let’s Talk About Fish Sauce, All About Fish Sauce

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If you have ever cooked Thai or Vietnamese food, there is a good chance that your recipe calls for you to use some fish sauce. This is because fish sauce is essential for Thai and Vietnamese foods.

The Fish sauce condiment is produced by soaking small ocean fish in sea salt for a period of about two years. The fermented fishy liquid is bottled into the condiment known as Fish Sauce. This fish sauce is a staple condiment for many East and Southeast Asia parts. Though many parts of the world use fish sauce as a condiment or as part of their food seasoning, the way fish sauce is made is basically about the same throughout the world.

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What is Fish Sauce?

The fish sauce condiment that most dishes in East and Southeast Asia use is soaking small ocean fish in sea salt for about two years. This allows the fish to ferment; a liquid will come from the fishy mixture bottled as fish sauce.

Most fish used today for fish sauce manufacturing are fish with strong flavors like anchovies, shrimp, mackerel, and other small ocean fish. They use this fish because they want the sauce to be flavorful.

The fish or the shellfish are mixed with a salt concentration of approximately two parts fish and 1 part salt. Over time, the salt will extract water from the fish’s flesh, and this, in turn, creates the savory fish sauce.

This entire process of extracting the water from the fish takes about two years. The fish and salt are placed in a large sealed container. Once it has been in these barrels or containers, the fermented mixture is taken out of the barrel or containers and then bottled into fish sauce.

Vietnamese Fish sauce with red chili
Vietnamese Fish sauce with red chili

Salt and Fish Are the Two Main Ingredients Of Fish Sauce.

The most important aspects of the fish sauce are the two main ingredients: fish and salt. These two make up almost the entire fish sauce.

The Fish Used In Fish Sauce

One of the most important ingredients in fish sauce is the fish. Ocean fish has a lot of flavors, as many manufacturers usually prefer anchovies. But for the quality of the sauce, the fish must be fresh, clean, and all about the same size.

The best quality fish sauce will usually use just one kind of fish. Some makers mix the fish, but the higher quality makers will use just one kind of fish. About 30 to 40 tons of fish will yield about 10,000 liters of bottled fish sauce.

The Salt Used in Fish Sauce

Natural sea salt is the best choice for any fish sauce production. The reason is that this is a natural salt.

In Vietnam, if you ever drive along the coast between the resort town of Nha Trang and Quy Nhon, you will see along the coast some salt flats where salt is being processed. This is also where a lot of fish sauce is made as the makers are near the ocean and can also obtain fresh sea salt to make the fish sauce.

The Process of Making Fish Sauce

The fish sauce, while fermenting, should be stirred each day. In about six months, the fish has started to break down, and the liquid rises to the surface. The solid fish will start to sink to the bottom of the container, while the liquid and salt crystals will then come to the top surface.

Fish sauce made in a place like Vietnam or Thailand will not press the liquid out of the fish, but instead, they will use a method to have the sauce strained or the salt mixture go naturally out of the sauce.

The fish sauce will also be exposed to the sun during the process. The reason is that the sun will help to evaporate some of the water and leave behind a very pure and concentrated fish sauce.

Some companies will try to cut corners by adding things into the fish sauce as water or other additives, but pure fish sauce is made from fish and sea salt.

What Fish Sauce is Called in Different Countries.

Fish sauce is much more common than many realize, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Even though the tastes of each of these may not all be the same, all of these countries have some version of fish sauce that they use in their traditional cooking or diet.

CountryName of Fish Sauce
Myanmar Ngan Bya Yay
CambodiaTeuk Trei
LaosNam Pa
Philippines Patis
Thailand Nam Pla
VietnamNuoc Mam
China Yulu
Korea Eojang, Aekjeot, Eoganjang
Indonesia Terasi
(semi-solid fish sauce paste)
ItalyColatura di Alici
Names of Fish Sauce in Various Countries.

Worcestershire sauce is from England and is used in English cooking. It uses part of fish sauce as fermented anchovies are part of its ingredients. Ancient Greece, Phoenicia, Rome, Carthage, and Byzantium used fermented fish sauce as a condiment in their cuisine.

The original Western ketchup was a savory fish sauce that did not have sugar or tomatoes but was more like the fish sauce used in Asia today.

When you are cooking Vietnamese, Thai, or other Asian foods, you will more than likely discover that the recipe will not call for much salt but will instead use fish sauce. This is because fish sauce is a staple condiment in most of their recipes and cooking.

You can discover some of our authentic Thai recipes by clicking here and our authentic Vietnamese recipes by clicking here.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is fish sauce?

Fish sauce is a condiment made by fermenting small ocean fish in sea salt for a period of about two years.

How is fish sauce made?

Fish sauce is made by soaking small ocean fish in sea salt and allowing them to ferment over a period of time, usually around two years.

What does fish sauce taste like?

Fish sauce has a strong, salty, and umami flavor. It adds depth and complexity to dishes.

Which countries use fish sauce?

Fish sauce is a staple condiment in many parts of East and Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Can fish sauce be used in non-Asian cuisines?

Yes, fish sauce can be used in various cuisines around the world. It can add a savory element to dishes and enhance flavors.

Are there different types of fish sauce?

Yes, there are different types of fish sauce, varying in quality, taste, and production methods. Some popular types include Thai fish sauce (nam pla) and Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam).

Is fish sauce vegetarian or vegan?

No, fish sauce is not vegetarian or vegan since it is made from fermented fish. There are, however, vegetarian and vegan alternatives available that mimic the flavor of fish sauce.

How should fish sauce be stored?

Fish sauce should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. It does not need to be refrigerated but should be tightly sealed to prevent odors from permeating.

What Is The Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine?

Vietnamese food uses the five elements of philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These 5 elements touch our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. They also take into account the color and flavor combinations of Vietnamese food.

You can discover more by reading our blog, The Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine by clicking here.

Why is Thai Food So Spicy?

Thai food is spicy as it combines a few cuisines, such as Indian, Chinese, and Portuguese. The Indians brought curry to Thailand. The Chinese taught the Thais how to cook using a wok, and the Portuguese traded many fruits and vegetables, including red chili.

You can discover more by reading our blog Why is Thai Food So Spicy? A Bit of History by clicking here.

Anita L Hummel
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