No longer a “secret weapon”, Southeast Asian chefs are getting creative with the traditional umami ingredient.
Fish sauce is nothing new. Typically made by fermenting small salted fish like anchovies, the salty, sweet, and seafood-like spice has flavored dishes in Asia for thousands of years. But in recent decades, there have been frequent articles in Western food media pour fish sauce as “they will penetrate the mystery needed from “bosses” to covertly add umami to just about anything – Caesar dressing, Bolognese, or Beans on toast. A stealthy shot of a potent, exotic elixir.
It’s true that a dash of fish sauce makes a good marinara. But the implication was that you had to do it hide fish sauce by sneaking it into the food of unsuspecting guests so they wouldn’t shy (“You say What in the tomato sauce?”). Everyone loves a good secret, but fish sauce — known as nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand, patis in the Philippines, and garum in ancient Phoenician cuisines — is such a common condiment that it’s similar to salt is used in the West or soy sauce in East Asia. And instead of hiding fish sauce, many Southeast Asian chefs, food artists, and home cooks are now loudly and proudly using the traditional ingredient in creative dishes, recipe titles, and even newsletter titles.
“Fish sauce seemed weird and scary to a lot of people,” he says Andrea Nguyen, award-winning author of six Vietnamese cookbooks from the late ’90s and early ’90s. At the time, she was working on a proposal for her first cookbook, which she wanted to call Pass the Fish Sauce. The book was finally published in 2006 with the title “In the Vietnamese kitchen‘, which was suggested by her publisher Ten Speed Press (and which Nguyen thought sounded elegant and expansive).
The implication was that you had to do it hide fish sauce and secretly smuggles it into the food of unsuspecting guests.
However, the title “Pass the Fish Sauce” lives on – it’s now the name of Nguyen’s newsletter, which she launched last November. Nguyen says the name not only underscores the spice’s importance in Vietnamese cuisine, but also reflects other of its hallmarks: “Building umami (Nuoc Mam is our top pick for deliciousness), personalization of flavor (you can make it your own and add a little more if needed), and community at the table and in the kitchen (pass the bottle or. .. bowl, please).
“We use (fish sauce) in everything because it’s our main source of sodium — we use very little salt,” says Daniel Le, executive chef at Essex pearl, a creative Southeast Asian restaurant in New York City. Le grew up in a Vietnamese-American home in Southern California, where fish sauce was a household staple, before working at fine-dining Western restaurants like the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Beach. His menu at the Essex Pearl is a tribute to his background and training. There, fish sauce manifests itself in both traditional and non-traditional ways: a sticky caramel of coconut and fish sauce encases a braised fillet of Buri; silky slices of salmon sashimi bathe in a pool of nuoc cham (a dipping sauce made with fish sauce, water, sugar and lime juice); and raw oysters on half shell are served with roasted red chili nuoc cham instead of mignonette.
Since 2020, when she started her blog, Abi Balingit’s passion has been bringing Southeast Asian ingredients like fish sauce into the dessert discussion The gloomy kitchen. In it she created a recipe for shortbread biscuits with calamansi patis glaze. The Stamped Calamansi-Lime Patis Shortbread recipe is included in her new cookbook Mayumu: Filipino-American desserts remixedwhich also includes a recipe for spicy caramels flavored with bagoong, a fermented shrimp paste.
“I think it just felt natural to use fish sauce and bagoong,” Balingit says, noting that Southeast Asian flavor profiles play a big role in savory-sweet combinations. “I’ve never really shied away from desserts because growing up here and trying maple bacon donuts I think it’s similar,” says Balingit.
Add acidity to the flavor matrix and you have another classic Southeast Asian sweets category: fresh fruit with fish sauce. Balingit remembers her aunt applying fish sauce directly to apple slices. And tart, unripe green mango with a sticky caramel dip infused with fish sauce is a classic Thai snack, he says Leela PunyaratabandhuAuthor of three Thai and Southeast Asian cookbooks.
“The idea of pairing a fishy ingredient with fruit as a sweet snack might seem strange, but it works,” says Punyaratabandhu. She included a recipe for the dish in her cookbook Bangkok. But when she can’t find a green mango in the US, tart Granny Smith apples are her go-to substitute.
Fish sauce also finds the spotlight in dishes like “Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Fish Sauce” and “Garlic Fish Sauce – Tomato Sauce with Bucatini and Ricotta” in Ronnie Woo’s cookbook. Have you eaten yet?: Delicious recipes from an all-American Asian chef. The popular content creator may not be of Southeast Asian descent, but considers fish sauce to be an indispensable part of the kitchen. “By this point, you’ve probably eaten more fish sauce than you realize,” Woo writes in the entry for fish sauce in the Fridge Staples section. “Fish sauce is everywhere and in everything.” The secret is out.
The traditional method of making fish sauce is quite rudimentary: small fish, mostly anchovies, are salted and left to ferment in barrels for months. The resulting amber-colored liquid is aspirated from the bottom of the barrel and filtered. However, most commercially available fish sauces aren’t made by salting and fermenting the fish, instead using chemical flavorings or anchovy powder and salt and sugar to quickly create the seasoning — a shortcut many say is a trade-off in creating a nuanced one flavor that can only arise through fermentation over time.
Most commercially available fish sauces are not made by salting and fermenting the fish, but are made with chemical flavoring or anchovy powder.
According to Danny Tran, co-owner, traditional fish sauce makers make up only about 10 percent of the market in Vietnam and less than 1 percent globally Son fish sauce with his wife Albee Nguyen Tran. “It takes us a year to make, and it takes just a few seconds to mix traditional fish sauce,” says Tran. “Our process is no secret — it’s 70 percent anchovies, 30 percent sea salt, and we let Mother Nature do her work on the island.”
Albee Nguyen Trans’s family has been in the fish sauce business on the Vietnamese island of Son Rai for four generations. Danny Tran was growing up surfing and skateboarding in Orange County, California when he and a few friends decided to move to Saigon during the global recession of 2011. He got into the food industry by opening a crawfish restaurant, but it was around this time that he came across a magazine article that made him turn to a more outdated concept: “I read in GQ In one article, they asked these top chefs in America what their favorite ingredient was, and they consistently answered fish sauce,” Tran recalls. “So I turned to my then-girlfriend — now my wife — and said, ‘Hey, doesn’t your family make fish sauce?'”
She was skeptical at first, as her family only made fish sauce in a traditional, long and laborious way, which she felt would not be commercially viable to sell outside of Vietnam. But Tran believed there was a market for it thanks to growing interest. They introduced the Son brand in 2014.
Andrea Nguyen compares fish sauce to olive oil — there’s the ready-made fish sauce that you want to enjoy in dipping sauces and dressings, and then there’s the cooked fish sauce, which can be a little bland and more one-dimensional. For the former, some Vietnamese brands like Son and Red Boat indicate the intensity of the fish sauce with an “N,” which refers to the nitrogen content. The higher the number, the more momentum. Then, if you really want to make your fish sauce artisanal, you can make your own: Punyaratabandhu starts by salting frozen anchovies, which are much easier to find than fresh where she lives in Chicago, before packaging them in a glass jar . “I leave the jar alone for six to twenty-four months before filtering the liquid,” she says.
While it’s nice to have access to both commercial and artisanal fish sauces for finishing and cooking, for many Southeast Asian Americans what matters most is which fish sauce is most readily available at their local grocery store. There’s no shame in only having one bottle in the fridge, either.
Balingit was thrilled when she recently first found fish sauce at a local grocery store where she lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, which has no Asian markets nearby: “I was like, ‘Wow, it’s finally here !’ ”
put it back explores the world of food, from the neon-lit aisles to the nooks and crannies of your closet. We look at why certain ingredients have achieved pantry staple status, the link between cookbooks and buying habits, the online nature of grocery shopping, and what ends up on the shelf as a result.
Photo by : Ben Hon (salmon sashimi)