Chef McJunkin dispels our fears about fish sauce
Fish sauce used to scare me. Like so many of us that grew up in the landlocked South, I was unconsciously taught that “fishy smell = bad.” Everything that swims had to be either breaded and deep fried or immersed in tartar sauce until every hint of seafood flavor was covered up with crispy breading and sweet pickle-flavored mayonnaise. I believed sardines, anchovies and fish sauce were to be ignored when encountered in a recipe, for fear that they would sully the dish with a smell reminiscent of the Chickamauga Dam on a warm summer day.
Then there was the duck noodle incident.
One night, while exploring the bustling nightlife of Bangkok, Thailand, I stumbled upon my favorite duck noodle cart on Soi 11 and ordered up a bowl of spicy noodle soup to help mediate the battle between Chang beer and Sang Som whiskey raging in my belly. After taking a seat at one of the rickety sidewalk tables, I began to season my noodle soup with the condiments that are as common to Thai tables as salt, pepper and ketchup are to ours. There were small jars of chili flakes, sugar, and prik namsom (chili garlic sauce) which I eagerly added to my soup along with a few shots of a light brown liquid from a fourth jar. In my less-than-attentive state I had not questioned the contents of that fourth jar, but within seconds something that smelled like a cat being bathed in a dirty fish tank assaulted my nostrils. The fourth jar had betrayed me. I had just defiled my precious duck noodle soup with the most rancid-smelling condiment on earth—fish sauce.
I was certain that my soup had now been transformed into a bowl of liquid death, but thanks to my raging hunger and the bravery that comes free with every fifth shot of Thai whiskey, I plunged my spoon in and took a big sip.
It was incredible.
There were no hints of fish, no off-putting smells. In fact, that noxious-smelling condiment had transformed my favorite noodle soup into a more complex and flavorful dish. I began to wonder: What exactly is fish sauce and how could I have been so spectacularly wrong about this ubiquitous Asian condiment?
Fish sauce, as it turns out, is essentially fermented, liquid fish. Salt, fish and water are placed into barrels and left to sit for 12-18 months. While that may sound like the recipe for a biological weapon, the sodium chloride (salt) molecules bind with water to not only draw out the natural juices of the fish, but to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria at the same time.
The changes brought about by the fermentation process make fish sauce behave like the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) by creating compounds called glutamates, which heighten flavors and create umami, or savoriness within whatever dish they are added to.
Although fish sauce is a quintessential Asian ingredient and the very idea of fermented fish sounds very foreign to Western ears, Italian archaeologist Claudio Giardino cites mentions of a fermented fish sauce called garum in Roman literature from as early as the 3rd century B.C. The Greeks and Romans used garum as a condiment much like we use ketchup or Worcestershire sauce today. In fact, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce both have their roots in fish sauce.
While fish sauce is well established in the cuisines of SE Asia, it is just beginning to gain popularity in Western kitchens. The most important things to remember when working with fish sauce are 1) Don’t taste it on its own unless you are a raging masochist 2) It tastes nothing like it smells once added to a dish, and 3) A little goes a really long way.
In my own kitchen, I use fish sauce instead of anchovies in Caesar dressing for a more subtle, nuttier flavor that is less fishy than anchovy. I’ve found it to be indispensable when making tomato sauce and I always add a couple of squirts to a finished chicken stock. Fish sauce is essentially bottled umami that home cooks and professional chefs alike can use as a flavor booster in a wide range of recipes from guacamole to braised beef.
When a savory dish seems like it’s missing something, a squirt or two of fish sauce will usually do the trick. It’s not scary, in spite of the smell, and will quickly become the go-to “secret ingredient” in your culinary bag of tricks. Pick up a bottle from the Asian market near you today, and while you’re at it grab a bottle for me too, I’m fresh out.