The Christian Science Monitor Discovers Fish Sauce

The Christian Science Monitor Discovers Fish Sauce
thatgirl @ CC BY-NC 2.0

Oh look, the Christian Science Monitor has discovered nước mắm, the fish sauce that is present in nearly all Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and a lot of Filipino food. The article is written in a tone that mixed elation at some big discovery (understandable) with a hefty dose of "eww!" (what?) It skips a lot of information, like how to buy it here in the United States, what you do with it when you've bought it, and how to store it.

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for introducing the Queen of Seasonings to people who've never heard of it, but this wasn't instructive at all; it sounded like the author got a junket to Vietnam and fired off this nothing of an article to justify her expenses.

It just started off badly; fish sauce isn't remotely like Camembert or jamón ibérico. The Vietnamese are amazing charcutiers. Mentioning Catalonian olive oil or Dijon mustard would have been a more apt comparison.

Next, the best fish sauce comes from the island of Phú Quốc. That's not to say that other places don't make great fish sauce, but it'd be akin to doing an article about Jewish delis and pastrami and visiting Miami.

This sentence grated horribly: "'Anchovies or salmon are best, but you can use pretty much any fish [in making the sauce],' explained the tour guide."

There are a lot of salmon in Vietnam, are there? Apparently the tour guide was fresh off the plane from Fargo. Even if salmon were native to Vietnam (their nearest population is either Siberia or New Zealand), nobody would make nước mắm from it anyway because it fetches such a high price for its meat. Nước mắm is made from anchovies, thank you very much.

The Christian Science Monitor Discovers Fish Sauce
deadhorse @ CC BY-NC 2.0

So, since the Monitor couldn't be arsed to provide any useful details for their audience, I'm going to step in and offer the information that should have been in the article. My qualifications? I live and work within easy striking distance of Little Saigon, I'm enough of a regular at the restaurants there that I'm no longer given a fork, and I go through two litres of fish sauce a year despite the fact that I don't cook Asian food as often as I might.

So let's get it straight: there are two principal kinds of fish sauce, easily told apart, at least in this country where such things are sold in clear glass bottles. Unfiltered fish sauce is opaque and gritty-looking, even in the bottle; it is extremely strongly flavored. The lifeblood of Southeast Asian cuisine is clear fish sauce; "clear" in the sense that you can see through it, not clear as in colorless. Don't buy the muddy sauce; while some crystallization in the bottle is fine, you should be able to see your hand through the liquid.

Fish sauce runs from about $2 to about $10 a bottle. Most of the common brands--Squid, Three Crabs, Golden Boy--will run about $4 for a bottle. "White people" grocery stores will often carry tiny bottles of Thai Taste in the "ethnic" aisle, right next to the La Choy fried noodles, the Sunbird chow mein flavoring packet and the other 1990's Asian delights, at three times the price of an Asian market.

As with anything you buy, read the ingredients. You are looking for exactly two ingredients: anchovies and salt. Many fish sauces have hydrolyzed proteins added to them; this means the fish sauce was produced the "quick" way. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you're going to cook with it. If you're going to use it raw (i.e., in nước chấm, the ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce), try to find the good stuff, without the hydrolyzed protein. Yes, you'll pay more for it, but the difference is obvious once you try the good stuff. Think of it as the difference between extra-virgin olive oil and the refined "pure" olive oil. Finally, do not buy fish sauce that has sugar already mixed into it; this is a way to disguise lower-quality fish sauce.

You want first press fish sauce (look for the words "nước mắm nhỉ" on the bottle); just like olive oil, the first pressing is the highest quality.

You don't have to refrigerate fish sauce. It is not going to spoil. It is already fermented; it already smells terrible. I do refrigerate mine, though, for one reason: cold blunts the scent, and the caps on the bottles sold in the United States are famously cheaply made (are you listening to me, Squid brand?). If you have an explosion, a sort of Three Crabs Island (that's another brand with a crappy cap) of fish sauce, it will smell less in the fridge, assuming you catch it quickly. Just make sure you let it come to room temperature if you're going to make nước chấm or other "raw" dipping sauces.

Next, you need to know what to do with it.

The first and foremost rule of cooking with fish sauce is that it gets stirred into dishes; the first time you throw fish sauce on a burning-hot pan (say, to deglaze a roasting pan), your kitchen will emit a noxious cloud that should be classed with mustard gas and tear gas as biological weapons. Stir a bit of your fish sauce into things that already contain a sauce, soup or stew.

The second rule of cooking with fish sauce is to reduce the salt in other components of the dish. This stuff is made from fish, salt and time; if you don't compensate elsewhere, you will choke on the sodium content of the finished dish. It is saltier than soy sauce; plan accordingly.

Nước mắm has a place even in the white-breadiest household; a few dashes of it added to such all-American dishes as beef stew, chili beans, turkey gravy or even tomato sauce deepens the flavor without any fishy taste whatsoever. Fish sauce is a natural source of glutamates (yes, like MSG, and, no, it shouldn't give you a headache if you're sensitive to MSG).

Balance the harsh edge of the fish sauce with sugar or another sweetener. It's okay to use sugar and fish sauce together, it's just not ideal to buy them that way. Use two-thirds the amount of sugar; if you use a tablespoon of fish sauce, use two teaspoons of sugar, honey or caramel sauce. 
Here are a couple of simple dishes you can make with your fish sauce.

This is what green curry paste looks like; it is chiles, seasonings and spices ground together into a wet paste.
This is what green curry paste looks like; it is chiles, seasonings and spices ground together into a wet paste.

First, Thai curry is well within your reach, as long as you can get curry paste. You can order it online (try Mae Ploy, in the resealable containers, or Maesri, in the small cans). Let the coconut milk sit in a bowl on the counter for a couple of hours, if you can; this causes the cream to rise to the top, just like the old days before all milk was homogenized.

2 cans coconut milk
2 Tbsp. green curry paste
2 cups chicken broth
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
4 tsp. sugar (palm sugar is best, but white sugar is fine)
1 lb. chicken thighs, cut into 1" cubes
Vegetables of your choice (steamed eggplant cubes, green beans, etc.)

Carefully pour the thick coconut cream into a wok (or a pan) set over medium heat, then stir the curry paste into the mixture. When it starts to bubble, add the remainder of the coconut milk, the broth, the fish sauce and the sugar together. Simmer the chicken pieces in the sauce until nearly done, then add the vegetables and cook until done. Serve with rice.

Normally, you would punch this up with more garlic, more lemongrass, and some kaffir lime leaves, and you'd finish it with fresh herbs, particularly Thai basil and cilantro, but this is the base recipe--do what you like.

Second, Vietnamese caramel fish (cá khò) is very easy. This looks like it violates the rule about stirring fish sauce into existing sauce, but juice will exude from the fish and you will have a tight lid on the pan.

2 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 Tbsp. burnt caramel sauce (made by mixing a cup of sugar with a quarter cup of water and boiling until the bubbles stack up on top of each other and tiny, tiny wisps of smoke just start to come off the mixture)
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
8 cloves garlic, peeled, trimmed and cut in half
1 lb. firm-fleshed fish (catfish, cod, haddock, mahi-mahi, etc.), cut into four pieces

Mix the first five ingredients together and marinate the fish in it for 15 minutes. Place the entire contents in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a tight-fitting lid (I use a Le Creuset saucepan; it works great), cover the pan, and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to a simmer for 20-30 minutes. Make a vegetable (stir-fried spinach or water spinach, maybe?), a thin soup and some rice and you've got Vietnamese family dinner.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you how to make the most delectable dipping sauce in all Asian cuisine, nước chấm. It uses equal parts of fish sauce and sugar, because it's eaten uncooked; there's no chance for heat to temper the sauce. Use the highest-quality fish sauce you can find for this, and eat it over steamed rice or rice noodles; take Vietnamese spring rolls or grilled meat (marinated in garlic, lemongrass and fish sauce, of course), wrap them in leaf lettuce, and dip them in this.

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup hot water
1 lime, scraped clean into a bowl (pulp and juice)
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tiny Thai bird chiles, sliced (substitute serranos, but the flavor is different)

Put the water and sugar in a bowl and mix; then add the fish sauce and lime, then the garlic and chiles. You can add more of any ingredient to your taste.

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