Flavoring Food with Fish Sauce
by Kasma Loha-unchit
From its Mediterranean Roots, Fish Sauce Now Flavors All Sorts of Southeast Asian Foods
My article (How Fish Sauce is Made) describes how fish sauce is made, recommended a few good brands, and suggested a few easy ways to use.
Fish sauce is so prevalently used throughout Southeast Asia that to come up with a single set of guidelines is almost impossible, as each culture has its own preferred strength of fish sauce and how to use it in its cuisine. As an example, I once heard a Vietnamese cook say that the primary rule in using fish sauce is never to use it straight, as it can make food taste too fishy. I, myself, use fish sauce straight all the time in my Thai cooking with wonderful results. But then, Thai cuisine, in general, is much more robustly flavored; good quality Thai fish sauce is also milder and less fishy.
In fact, the Thai equivalent of salt and pepper at the dinner table is a simple mixture of Thai chiles (bird peppers) and fish sauce (3-5 chiles cut into thin rounds with seeds to 2 Tbs. fish sauce), whereas the Vietnamese equivalent, called "nuoc cham," dilutes fish sauce with an equal amount of water and to this mixture is added vinegar, lime juice, sugar and a touch of crushed chile. (Vietnamese-Style Spicy Fish Sauce recipe.) Because of its tangy sour flavor, "nuoc cham" is more than just salt and pepper, and serves as an all-purpose dipping sauce (e.g. for egg rolls), as well as a dressing for salads.
In Thai cuisine, on the other hand, different types of sauces are used for different purposes. For instance, an intensely hot-and-sour mixture made with undiluted fish sauce with lime juice, plenty of crushed chiles and garlic, and a little sugar, is preferred as a salad dressing especially for seafood salads. (Thai-Style Hot-and-Sour Dressing for Seafood Salads recipe.) For fried eggrolls and other crispy fried appetizers, a much sweeter, thick, vinegar-based chile sauce is used, which usually is salted with sea salt rather than fish sauce.
In my kitchen, fish sauce is used liberally in the place of salt to flavor all sorts of dishes - appetizers, snacks, soups, salads, curries, noodles, and all manner of stir-fried dishes. In short, everything but dessert. Even simple stir-fried vegetables benefit from a sprinkling of good-quality fish sauce. Because of its fragrant aroma of the sea, seafood dishes are especially delicious flavored with it.
One of the staple foods I never tire of eating is garlicky, crisp-fried fish served with a chile-lime fish sauce (Chile Lime Fish Sauce recipe). In my childhood, I loved mixing steamed rice on my plate thoroughly with small bites of fried fish, crispy garlic, and the tangy fish sauce mixture - a very satisfying one-dish meal, better than any fried rice!
Besides Southeast Asian dishes, good-quality fish sauce can enhance other foods that you cook, so be bold and creative with it. One of my students discovered it improved her Caesar salad (after all, it is made from anchovies). Another found that it worked wonders on his minestrone soup and pasta dishes. Little did he realize that he was returning fish sauce to its Mediterranean origins. The ancient Romans cherished this salty extract of anchovies, which they called "garum" (or "liquamen"), and doused their food with this magical elixir. We Southeast Asians have a lot for which to be thankful to the Romans, for passing along their ancient formula to our dinner tables.
See Also: The Thai Fish-Eating Tradition.
Here's an interesting blog entry (offsite) by Mary Dan Eades, M.D. titled Garum (Fish Sauce) The Ketchup of Antiquity.