Nothing’s Fishy About Fish Sauce

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...


Fish sauce is an oh-so-tasty, funky, fermented condiment that is the backbone of many a flavorful southeast Asia-influenced dish. The taste is strong, it’s not for everyone. People who know how to work with it, use it subtlely. 

Our friends Jori Jayne Emde and Zak Pelaccio taught us early and often that this stuff is the right stuff. ‘You can’t cook without it’, is pretty much their credo.

Zak explains his fascination with fish sauce:

I took it upon myself to try every fish sauce everywhere I went, from garum to budu, and invest my culinary life in its rich, round, deep and soul satisfying salinity.

We’ve learned our lessons well. It’s a staple in our house, not as pervasive as the Emde-Pelaccio kitchen, but their influence has reached into our larder. Fish sauce rules.

Author Jess Kapadia on Food offers this nugget on the subject.

Are you sure you want to know? Cause we’ll tell you. Fish sauce in its purest form is the liquid extracted from fish, likely anchovies, while they’re being fermented or salted. Its use is rampant all over Asia, most notably in Thailand and Vietnam. Ancient Romans revered the stuff — everyone, rich and poor, doused their food with varying qualities and strengths of fish sauce, the rarest of which were as sought after as caviar.

Like Asian fish sauces, the Roman version was made by layering fish and salt until it ferments.

And now The Salt, National Public Radio’s food blog weighs in with information of which a lot of fish sauce fans may not be aware. The ancient ancestor of today’s fish sauce originally came not from some obscure corner in Asia, but from the continent of Europe. The Roman Empire is getting the credit for being there first with the fish sauce.

The article, penned by Deena Prichep, entitled Fish Sauce: An Ancient Roman Condiment Rises Again explains:

Remains of garum factories have been excavated from Spain to Portugal to northern Africa. Some of these factories appear to have employed upwards of 50 people.

And this fish sauce became an integral part of Roman cuisine. Food historian Sally Grainger has recreated recipes from antiquity that used garum both as a general salt substitute and as the basis of dips and sauces. “After the fish sauce is made, it was then turned into compound sauces–with honey, with wine, with vinegar, with other herbs, with oil.”

Ms. Prichep continues:

Grainger says Romans fermented their sauce with less salt than the modern versions — using about 15 percent salt, versus 50 percent. This creates a fermentation environment that releases more of the protein, making garum a good source of nutrients. It also gives it a rich, savory umami taste.

More and more top-flight chefs are discovering (rediscovering?) this funky taste. The Salt blog speaks to that subject:

Chef Josh McFadden, who runs Ava Gene’s, a Roman-inspired restaurant in Portland, Ore., says he was thrilled to find a tiny bottle of colatura di alici in New York a few years ago.

“It was kind of a defining moment of aha! There’s a different ingredient to be able tell the story of what Italian food is,” he says. At Ava Gene’s, McFadden uses both the Italian colatura, as well as a modern Asian fish sauce that features a protein content in line with ancient garum.

McFadden uses fish sauce to finish dishes, and also, like the ancient Romans, adopts it as the basis for other sauces,bringing out the flavor of everything from grilled meats to raw vegetables.

Try not to be put off by what you may imagine fish sauce’s taste to be. Seek out a few different bottles of the funky stuff at your local Asian market. See which one you prefer and begin your exploration. Who knows? Occasionally, your cooking just might take a different direction.

Does fish sauce sound like something you may want to explore? Do you already cook with fish sauce?

Photo credit: Jori Jayne Emde (Thank you, Jori.)