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Fish Sauce: My Dark, Stinky Kitchen Secret

By: Chef Scotty Harris

Is permanent like the preordained bulk

Of the First National Bank

Like fish sauce, but agreeable.
John Ashbery

Every cook worth their salt (pun intended) has at least one bottle or jar stashed in their kitchen that is reached for in the event of an emergency. It may be a whole ingredient. It may be a condiment, or even a spice or seasoning blend. When your sauce isn’t making it or your stew isn’t “stewish” enough, every cook will reach for that signature something and, well–bam!–everything starts coming together. In my case, that favorite culinary tool comes in a large glass bottle, filled with a dark amber liquid and labeled with the characters of languages I do not understand. My secret is fish sauce.
Fish sauce, the ubiquitous condiment of Southeast Asia, found from Burma (Ngan-pya-ye) to Vietnam (Nuoc Mam), Thailand (Nam Pla) to the Philippines (Patis). Sauces based on fermented fish are at least 2500 years old. Modern fish sauce is a relative of–if not a direct descendant of–the Garum of ancient Greece and Rome. Garum or liquamen is mentioned in the works of Apicius, Pliny the Elder and Seneca, among others. Ruins of garum factories, or salsamentarii have been found in Italy, Spain, France and North Africa. Such factories were primarily located along the shoreline to ensure the delivery of a fresh catch, but also because fermenting fish can be somewhat fragrant, shall we say.

With the passing of the Roman Empire, the taste for garum faded: by the 10th century it remained mostly in the courts of Constantinople. Whether garum traveled from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia or not, it is certain that the inspiration of sauces based on fermented fish made the return trip.  India undoubtedly influenced the 1830’s creation of the anchovy-based sauce known to the world as Worcestershire sauce. If you don’t have that in your pantry, you certainly have the offspring (in name, if not in manufacture) of that venerable fish sauce known in the Amoy dialect of southern China as ketsiap.

Modern fish sauce is made from anchovies, or other small, schooling fish. As in ancient times, fish sauce factories are located on the coast to insure that the fish are very fresh right up until processing. The fish are rinsed, salted and then packed in large crocks. More salt is placed on top, and the crocks are covered with bamboo mats with heavy rocks used to weigh them down. The fish are left to ferment in the sun for as few as nine and as many as eighteen months. Occasionally, the crocks are uncovered and the contents allowed to interact directly with air and sun.

In a manner strikingly similar to the extraction and processing of olive oil, including the increasingly mechanical method for removing the essences that remain, first grade fish sauce is the pure, filtered liquid drawn off when fermentation is complete. Salted water is added to the remains, and after two or three months of additional fermentation the result is second or third grade. Boiling the solids that are still left, with more salt water, makes the lowest grade.
The aroma of first class fish sauce has most charitably been described by author and teacher Kasma Loha-unchit as having “a pleasant aroma of the sea”. Asian food expert Bruce Cost likened it to “an odorous cheese”, while being thankful that its fragrance is stronger than its taste. My own opinion of its bouquet is unprintable here, but I adhere strongly to the food maxim that sometimes the smell must be overlooked to enjoy the wonders of the taste. The taste of pure fish sauce conjures in me the words “concentrated” and “intense”. There is saltiness, to be sure, and a flavor I chose to call, not “fishy”, but  rather “a taste of sea”. There is something else lingering on the tongue; something difficult to describe. That is the secret in this “secret ingredient”.

With the simple addition of some sliced scallions it becomes a delightful dip for Southeast Asian finger food. Dress it up with lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar, chilli, and shredded carrot and you have the sublime Vietnamese Nuoc Cham, one of the finest sauces on the planet. Combined in a seafood stock, with a variety of additions including shrimp, lemongrass, mushrooms, kaffir lime leaves and palm sugar, you have the Thai soup (pictured above), Tom Yum Goong (though it has many spellings). Hot, sour, salty and sweet in perfect balance, it is one of the truly great soups created by humankind. My marriage can be attributed, in part, to this soup.

There should be no surprise that this condiment works marvelously in the cuisines of Southeast Asia. What is more interesting, is that it works in the fare of other cultures. Salt has been described as a conductor of flavor, but fish sauce does something more. Yes it adds a layer of saltiness, but it also seems to knit disparate flavors together in a way few other additives do. On top of that, there is that certain “something”, a foundation of flavor that cannot easily be described–at least in English. Fortunately, the Japanese have a word for that flavor. To fully understand that, we must talk about the science of taste.

Though smell has a vital part in the appreciation of taste, the primary sensory organs are in the mouth–specifically the taste buds on the tongue and other parts of the mouth. Many of us recall the charts we were shown in school, showing the parts tongue that sensed the four basic tastes. That chart turns out to be wrong, but the four primary tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter have been regularly accepted. That began to change in the early 20th Century.
Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, of Tokyo Imperial University, began to investigate what he thought to be an elusive new taste. In 1908, his analysis of the Japanese stock dashi led him to proclaim that fifth taste, which he called umami. His research traced the source of this new flavor to glutamic acid, an amino acid. Glutamic acid and its offspring occur naturally in a wide variety of foods, including beef, tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. Yet, for many years, food scientists and other writers denied the existence of umami. Some simply said that since umami is not an easily discernible taste, it didn’t exist. Others saw it as simply as a marketing tool. You see, Dr. Ikeda not only “discovered” umami and traced its source to glutamic acid; he also developed a process to extract the sodium salt from glutamic acid, commonly known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

In the last twenty years, scientists studying taste have, in fact, found that there are receptors among the taste buds that react to the various glutamates. Umami appears legitimate. It may be to proteins what “sweet” is to carbohydrates–an inbred function that makes us want to eat the things that we need to survive. Where do some of the highest concentrations of naturally occurring glutamates exist? In substances that are either aged and/or fermented. Many dry sausages, and cheeses such as Parmesan, are high in glutamates. So are soy sauce and worcestershire sauce. Fish sauce has one of the highest levels of them all.

There’s the rub, as the Dane would say. Those food items with the most naturally occurring glutamates have strong flavors of their own. They might work in some savory dishes, but not in others. To get around that, those glutamates were extracted, and MSG was born. MSG has been blamed for everything from adverse physical reactions (possibly true, but not yet proven), to being overused by bad restaurants (definitely true), to financing James Bond’s SPECTRE nemesis, Osato (fiction). What cannot be denied is that MSG and its relatives, sometimes hidden as things lik
e “hydrolyzed proteins” or “yeast extracts”, do have a flavor enhancing effect.

golden boy.jpgThe latter changed my choice of brand. For years I chose the oft recommended Three Crabs brand, which us readily available in local supermarkets. Recently, I found that one expert changed her mind as that brand contains hydrolyzed wheat proteins and fructose. She describes it as “a flavor-enhanced, processed food product”.  I now use Golden Boy (see inset), the one with the chubby baby on the label that makes my daughters say, “he’s weird”. It’s available at a lot of broad-based Asian markets (I get mine at Ni Hoowa on Sheridan. It is certainly available in Buffalo at Phu Thai on Connecticut or A’Chau on Niagara Street). Squid brand is also good.

It’s tough for an opinionated guy like me to admit, but I am not ready to take a side as to whether or not the reputation of MSG will ultimately be rehabilitated. Yet there is no doubt in my mind as to the effectiveness of glutamates as a flavor additive. So, for now, when it won’t overwhelm a dish, I’ll stick with my stinky amber friend.

Umami. It may sound more like something Harry Potter might utter as a charm, but it does work like a charm in my kitchen.

is a recovering attorney, occasional caterer, food blogger
and full time dad.  He has cooked at DACC’S, Warren’s and Fredi. None of
them are still open. You can find him at

 Lead photo used under the Creative Commons license, source

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