If there’s one ingredient that’s a staple in Southeast Asian cuisine, it’s fish sauce. This salty, umami-packed condiment is used in everything from stir-fries to dipping sauces. Moreover, it adds a unique depth of flavor to any dish. However, what exactly is fish sauce? How is it made? Are there other condiments you can use if you’re out of it? Let’s learn everything you need to know about fish sauce, including its history, how it’s made, and some tips on using fish sauce for cooking.
What Is Fish Sauce Made Of?
As its name suggests, fish sauce is made from fish that has been fermented in salt water. The most common type of fish used for this purpose is anchovies, but other types of fish can also be used, such as tilapia, mackerel, or even shrimp (5).
The fermentation process breaks down the fish proteins into amino acids, which are what give the fish sauce its characteristic— salty, umami flavor.
How Is Fish Sauce Made?
Traditional fish sauce is made by packing whole fish (usually anchovies) into barrels or jars, then covering them with salt water. The barrels are then left to ferment in the sun for several months to two years.
During this time, fish release their enzymes, which break down the proteins into amino acids. The salt water also helps preserve the fish, preventing them from going bad.
After fermentation, fish are removed from the barrels and the liquid is strained. This liquid is then bottled and sold as fish sauce.
Nowadays, many commercial brands of fish sauce take shortcuts in their production process, using only the fish guts and bones instead of whole fish. This results in a lower-quality sauce that doesn’t have the same depth of flavor.
What Does Fish Sauce Do For A Recipe?
Fish sauce is a popular ingredient for many reasons, such as:
Giving A Distinctive Flavor
Fish sauce has a very distinct umami flavor that can’t be replicated with any other ingredient. It’s salty, slightly sweet, and perfect for adding depth of flavor to recipes.
Adding Salty Flavor
In addition to its unique flavor, the fish sauce also adds saltiness to a dish. This is why it’s often used as a seasoning or added to recipes that call for soy sauce or salt.
When used in moderation, fish sauce can also add a lovely aroma to a dish. It’s often used as an ingredient in marinades and sauces for this reason.
Functional Benefits Of Fish Sauce
In addition to its flavor, the fish sauce also has some functional benefits, including:
Helping Tenderize Meat
The fish sauce contains enzymes that can help tenderize meat. This is why it’s often used as a marinade for meats like chicken, beef, and pork.
Adding Body To A Dish
Fish sauce for cooking can also help add body to a dish because of its umami flavor. This means that it can make a recipe seem more filling and satisfying.
Helping Balance Flavors
Fish sauce is also good at helping balance the flavors in a dish. This is because it has both salty and sweet notes. If a recipe seems too sweet or too savory, a few dashes of fish sauce can help even things out.
Health Benefits Of Fish Sauce
Fish sauce for cooking is also good for you and is a source of:
Due to its fish content, fish sauce is a source of protein (6). 1 tbsp of fish sauce adds about 1 gram of protein to your dish.
Vitamins And Minerals
A fish sauce also contains vitamins and minerals like:
- Potassium: Crucial for proper muscle function (9)
- Iron: Important for healthy blood cells (12)
- Magnesium: Necessary for hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body (14)
A fish sauce contains amino acids like glycine and alanine. These amino acids may have the potential to improve cell function in ways that might (7):
- Reduce inflammation
- Boost immune function
- Support cardiovascular health
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How To Use Fish Sauce?
Now that you know all about fish sauce, you might be wondering how to use it.
Fish sauce can be used in many different ways, such as:
- Seasoning: Add fish sauce to taste recipes that could benefit from its salty, umami flavor. This includes soups, stews, stir fry, and sauces.
- Dipping Sauce: Fish sauce is often used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, dumplings, and other appetizers.
- An Additional Ingredient For Salad Dressing: Fish sauce can also be used to make flavorful salad dressings. Simply combine it with lime juice, rice vinegar, and sugar to taste.
- Finishing Touch: A few dashes of fish sauce can also be used as a finishing touch for cooked dishes. This adds a boost of flavor and can help balance the flavors in a recipe.
- Part Of A Marinade: Fish sauce can also be used as part of a marinade for meats like chicken, beef, and pork. Simply combine it with other ingredients like lime juice, garlic, and sugar.
If you are new to using fish sauce for cooking, start by using it sparingly. A little bit goes a long way, and it is easy to add more if needed. In addition, fish sauce can be used in place of salt or soy sauce in a recipe.
When using fish sauce for cooking, be sure to taste the dish as you go along. This will help you determine how much fish sauce to use, and whether or not the flavor is too strong.
Is There A Substitute For Fish Sauce?
If you can’t find fish sauce or don’t like the taste, there are a few substitutes that can be used, these include:
Soy sauce is the best fish sauce substitute for several reasons. First, it has a similar salty flavor. Second, it is suitable for vegans because it’s not made from fish. Third, it is easy to find at most grocery stores.
Soy sauce comes in different varieties, including light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is a good all-purpose option, while dark soy sauce has a richer flavor.
This condiment also comes in a variety of flavors— such as Shiro, Tamari, and Saishikomi —which can be used to add different dimensions of flavor to a recipe.
One health benefit of soy sauce is that it contains oligosaccharides that occur naturally in soybeans. These oligosaccharides might be beneficial for gut health (11).
Unfortunately, this condiment is high in sodium, so people with high blood pressure or other conditions requiring them to limit sodium should use it sparingly (13).
Coconut aminos are another good fish sauce substitute. This condiment is made from the fermented sap of coconuts, and it has a salty, savory flavor. Coconut aminos also contain amino acids and minerals like potassium, calcium, and iron.
Another benefit of this condiment is that it is gluten-free. This makes it a good option for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.
Worcestershire sauce is another good fish sauce substitute. This condiment is made from a variety of ingredients, including vinegar, anchovies, tamarind, molasses, and spices.
Worcestershire sauce has a savory, umami flavor that can be used to add depth of flavor to a recipe.
Worcestershire sauce is lower in sodium than soy sauce or fish sauce. It’s also fat-free, making it a good option for people who are trying to reduce their fat intake (4).
Tamari sauce is the Japanese version of soy sauce. It is made from fermented soybeans and has a slightly sweeter flavor than soy sauce.
Tamari sauce is gluten-free, making it a good option for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. This condiment is also lower in sodium than soy sauce or fish sauce.
However, it has a pungent flavor that some people may not enjoy. If you are trying tamari sauce for the first time, start by using it sparingly to see if you like the flavor.
Oyster sauce is of Cantonese origin, and it is made from oysters that have been simmered in water until they release their natural juices. The oyster juices are then combined with salt and other seasonings to create a thick, savory sauce.
Oyster sauce has a unique flavor that’s somewhat similar to fish sauce. However, it has a more subtle flavor, so it may not be the best substitute for fish sauce in all recipes, or you may need to use more of it.
One health benefit of oyster sauce is that it has much less sodium than soy sauce or fish sauce.
However, it’s high in sugar, so people with diabetes should use it sparingly.
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Hoisin sauce is a thick, sweet, and pungent sauce that’s of Cantonese origin. It’s made from a variety of ingredients, including soybeans, vinegar, sugar, and spices.
Hoisin sauce can be used as a dipping sauce or as an ingredient in recipes. It combines the saltiness of soy sauce with a hint of barbecue-sauce-like sweetness. For best results, mix it with other sauces, like soy sauce, to create a more complex flavor profile.
Fish broth or stock can replace fish sauce in selected recipes, depending on the other flavors that are present. For example, if a recipe contains ginger, garlic, and scallions, then fish broth would be a good choice because it would not compete with those flavors.
The downside to using fish broth is that it will not provide the same depth of flavor as fish sauce.
If you decide to use fish broth, make your own or look for a brand that’s made with minimal ingredients. This will help ensure that the broth does not contain any unwanted additives or preservatives.
Homemade Fish Sauce
You can also make your own fish sauce at home. This is a good option if you can’t find a fish sauce substitute that you like.
- 300 grams anchovies
- 100 grams of coarse sea salt
- Rinse the anchovies in cold water.
- Place the anchovies and salt in a glass jar, then mix thoroughly.
- Cover the jar and place it in a cool, dry place. Allow the mixture to ferment for at least 6 months.
- After 6 months, simmer the mixture in water over low heat for 2 hours.
- Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth.
- Store the fish sauce in a clean glass jar in the fridge.
Making your own fish sauce is a time-consuming process, but it’s worth it if you want to control the ingredients and flavor of your sauce.
When made correctly, fish sauce can last for several years. However, it’s important to monitor the fish sauce during storage to make sure that it doesn’t develop mold or an off odor. If either of these happens, discard the sauce.
Fish sauce is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine. It is made from fermented fish and has a salty, savory flavor. Fish sauce for cooking can also be used in place of salt or soy sauce in a recipe.
If you can’t find fish sauce or don’t like its taste, there are a few substitutes that can be used, including soy sauce, coconut aminos, Worcestershire sauce, and tamari sauce. Start by using these condiments sparingly to see if you like the flavor.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Calcium Intake in Bone Health: A Focus on Calcium-Rich Mineral Waters (2018, mdpi.com)
- Calories in Coconut Aminos (n.d.mnutritionix.com)
- Calories in Soy Sauce (n.d.mnutritionix.com)
- Calories in Worcestershire Sauce (n.d., nutritionix.com)
- Fish Sauce – an overview (n.d., sciencedirect.com)
- FISH SAUCE PRODUCTS AND MANUFACTURING: A REVIEW (2007, tandfonline.com)
- Functional amino acids in nutrition and health (2003, link.springer.com)
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health (2015, ahajournals.org)
- Potassium intake, skeletal muscle mass, and effect modification by sex: data from the 2008–2011 KNHANES (2020, biomedcentral.com)
- Recent Advances in Marine-Based Nutraceuticals and Their Health Benefits (2020, mdpi.com)
- Regulation of Intestinal Inflammation by Soybean and Soy-Derived Compounds (2021, mdpi.com)
- Review on iron and its importance for human health (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Sodium Intake and Hypertension (2019, mdpi.com)
- The Importance of Magnesium in Clinical Healthcare (2017, hindawi.com)
- The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and Treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders (2020, mdpi.com)