How to use fish sauce to add a savory, umami complexity to your cooking

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FISH SAUCE, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. I can't imagine a world without you in it. My heart pangs at the thought of Thanksgiving without nuoc cham roasted carrots. The biggest misconception about fish sauce is that it’s “fishy.” and sure, it might smell fishy—hell yeah, it’s MADE OF FISH—but in cooking, it functions more like salt, và brings a deeper, savory, umami punch lớn whatever it’s splashed into.

And yet what even is this stinky beautiful liquid? How does it bởi the things it does? and how can you use it to its full potential?

This condiment is thousands of years old. In ancient Rome they called it garum. The nerdy-charming Harold McGee notes in On Food và Cooking that the historian Pliny defined garum as “liquor from putrefaction,” which sounds delicious, no? Second khổng lồ perfume, McGee tells us, garum was one of the most valuable liquids around. I'd argue it still is!

It’s a fermented condiment typically made from anchovies that’s glorious umami razzle-dazzle in a bottle. While nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) & nam pla (Thai fish sauce) are among the most widely available types of fish sauce in the U.S., it exists in slightly varying styles all over the world: ngan-pya-ye (Burmese), tuk trey (Cambodian), budu (Malaysian), patis (Filipino), colatura di alici (Italian), shottsuru (Japanese), aekjeot (Korean).

Simply put, fish (anchovies are the most commonly used, but some brands contain trace amounts of by-catch like squid và other small swimmers) are combined with salt và aged in barrels for six months khổng lồ a year (or longer). The salt draws out the moisture & preserves the anchovies so they can ferment for long periods of time without spoiling, during which microbes grow on the fish, deepening the sauce's flavor. The liquid is strained và sun-dried, then aged a month or so more in ceramic urns or plastic barrels before bottling.

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The good stuff has just two ingredients: fish & salt. Some brands địa chỉ cửa hàng sugar for balance, which isn’t the end of the world, but anything else is suspect (e.g., preservatives). Red Boat, our favorite Vietnamese fish sauce, has a deep, not-too-salty flavor.


Red Boat 40°N Fish Sauce

$10 at Sur La Table
And how bởi I store it?
It stays good for several years, though it may darken & concentrate in flavor over time. If your kitchen gets hot, or if you don’t use fish sauce often, keep it in the refrigerator.


A little goes a long way—sprinkle a few drops anywhere you want a bit of extra-savory funk. Try it in...

...or start with nuoc cham! This quick and potent Vietnamese staple sauce pairs with any protein, salads, or roasted vegetables. Whisk 2 Tbsp. Fresh lime juice, 2 Tbsp. Fish sauce, 1⁄2 tsp. Sugar, và 1 Tbsp. Water in a small bowl until sugar is dissolved. Set in 1 finely chopped small garlic clove & 1 Tbsp. Finely chopped cilantro.