If you love Vietnamese food, you may know already that fish sauce is the most used condiment in our cuisine. We use fish sauce every day to season almost every savory dish. We are serious about fish sauce.
Fish sauce is one of the most famous condiments in Southeast Asian cuisines. Most of the popular Vietnamese or Thai dishes contains fish sauce. Think about Pho, Vietnamese grilled pork chops, or Pad Thai. While boasting different taste profiles, all these dishes have the rich umami and the unmistakable fish sauce aroma.
In this post, I will focus on Vietnamese fish sauce and its use in our cuisine. You will also find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about fish sauce. So let’s get started.
What is fish sauce?
Fish sauce is a liquid condiment widely used in Southeast Asian countries. In East Asia, people use fish sauce only for specific dishes or accompany other seasoning ingredients.
Fish sauce is the soul of Vietnamese cooking. I cannot imagine Vietnamese food without fish sauce. Since we have a long coastal line, the fish sauce industry is blooming. There are hundreds of brands of fish sauce on the market.
Overseas, there is a limited amount of fish sauce brands you can choose from. Further down in this post, we will discuss some of the most recommended fish sauce brands and which one to buy.
How it is made
It is made from small fish like anchovies or krill, coated in thick layers of salt, and ferment in barrels for months or up to 2 years.
Today, many commercialized fish sauces available on the market have way more ingredients than just fish and salt. You often spot sugar, water, and various artificial seasoning in the back of a fish sauce bottle.
Since more ingredients add-in, these fish sauces tend to be sweeter, less salty, and lighter in color than traditional fish sauce. Many people are acquainted with these tastes if it is what they eat and use growing up.
If you switch to a bottle of fish sauce made the traditional way from only fish and salt, it may take time to adjust and appreciate that rich umami flavor.
How to use
Fish sauce is so versatile to use, especially if your menu consists of Southeast Asian cuisine. You can use fish sauce to marinate, season while cooking, or make dipping sauces.
It is a safe choice to closely follow the recipe when it comes to how much and when to add fish sauce to a certain dish.
When it comes to adding fish sauce to broths, like beef pho or chicken soup, a good tip is to add fish sauce toward the end of the cooking time. That way, you can preserve the rich flavors and natural sweetness from the bone broth. Fish sauce is only a nice touch of seasoning for the broth. It should not take center stage and overwhelm other flavors.
Which Vietnamese fish sauce to buy
If you come to a large Vietnamese market, you may feel overwhelmed at the fish sauce aisle. All bottles of fish sauce look kind of similar with an amber liquid inside. So which one to choose?
I will narrow down the choices to you to 2 options: Red Boat or Three Crabs brand Viet Huong fish sauce. The debate is hot when you ask which is the best fish sauce in any Vietnamese food group. The truth is, people have different tastes, so answers vary. But Red Boat and Three Crabs fish sauce win most times.
Red Boat fish sauce is a high-quality one at 40°N. Degrees N, relates to fish sauce’s protein level is an industry-standard. It measures the number of grams of nitrogen per liter of fish sauce. For high-quality fish sauces, degree N should be greater than 30°. The higher degree N, the more complex and richer the flavors get. Most fish sauce brands outside of Vietnam go below this number.
A crucial point when choosing good fish sauce is to look for a fish sauce with fewer ingredients. Why? Because it takes only two ingredients, fish and salt, to create a great fish sauce. So you do not want a long list of ingredients that resulted in diluted and artificial flavored fish sauce.
With all things said, why everyone does not go with Red Boat fish sauce, and some prefer Three Crabs brands. First, Red Boat fish sauce is not available in every Asian or Vietnamese market. It can be hard or even impossible to find, depending on where you live.
Second, some people prefer three Crabs fish sauce flavor, less concentrated, less salty, and easier to use. Compared with other fish sauce brands except for Red Boat, it is a good, if not the best, choice.
For me, both fish sauce brands work well. Red Boat fish sauce is not always available from where I live, so I also use the Three Crabs brand. There are differences in saltiness and sweetness, so I need to adjust the amount used accordingly.
Since taste is a partly subjective matter, the information above is a reference only for choosing the best fish sauce. Apart from the two brands mentioned above, Son fish sauce and Megachef fish sauce are liked by many.
Can fish sauce go bad
Fish sauce rarely goes bad and can be kept for a few years (2 – 3 years) after opening. After a long time, the flavor may change slightly, and some salt crystals may form inside the bottle.
Since we cook with fish sauce daily, we need to stock up on fish sauce in case we run out of them rather than worry about the expiration date. If you want to try using fish sauce, I suggest buying small-sized bottles available in many Asian markets or large chain grocery stores.
How to store
Fish sauce is a fermented liquid condiment, so it sits on the pantry shelf just fine without refrigeration. Store fish sauce in a cool and dry place, and it should be good to use for months and even years.
Are fish sauce and oyster sauce the same
Fish sauce and oyster sauce are not the same. Simply put, fish sauce is made from fish and salt, while the oyster sauce is made from oyster, salt, sugar, and thicken with cornstarch.
Fish sauce is in liquid form with amber color. On the other hand, oyster sauce is thick and has a dark brown color.
You can use fish sauce or oyster sauce to marinate or season food during cooking. Also, they are good base ingredients for various dipping sauces. But they have completely different tastes and cannot be used interchangeably.
Fish sauce substitute
If you cannot eat fish sauce but curious about the taste, vegan fish sauce is available in the market. It is often derived from seaweed, mushroom, soy sauce, and other aromatics. I would not say it tastes just like regular fish sauce but, all in all, a good substitute that adds savory umami to your dish.
You can find them at some grocery stores, online, or make the vegan fish sauce at home.