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Fish Sauce - The Soy Sauce of South East Asia - July 2006 Newsletter

Americans season their food with salt, while the Chinese have soy sauce – but in Southeast Asia, it’s fish sauce that enhances most dishes’ distinctive flavors. This salty, pungent brewed tea-colored condiment is made from fermented fish, and used by chefs to add both saltiness and depth to their dishes. Known as nuoc mam in Vietnam, nam pla in Thailand and patis in the Philippines, this flavorful sauce is also used by cooks in other Asian countries, like Korea where it is called jeotgal and China, where it is called yulu. In Thailand, where it is known as nam pla, it is the single most important flavoring in the country’s cuisine.

Intensly flavored, a little of this sauce goes a long way, and is almost never used straight. Instead, it adds depth and complexity to dipping sauces, dressings and Asian favorites like pad thai. Pungent and aromatic, the smell of fish sauce definitely takes some getting used to. Cooking eliminates some of the “fishiness,” and adds a layer of richness to food.

Fish sauce is most commonly made from anchovies which abundantly fill the waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Mackeral or sardines, though more expensive, are sometimes used as well. To make the sauce, freshly caught fish are packed with sea salt and placed in wooden bins, earthenware jars or concrete bins. They sit and ferment for six months to a year, then the liquid is drained, filtered and then bottled.

Fish sauce has found a home in many non-Asian kitchens, as well. Used in place of anchovies, a little bit of fish sauce can be added to round out tomato sauces for pasta, soup, vinaigrettes – even Caesar salad, which some say produces a mellower, less fishy-tasting salad.

For those who want to recreate the intense, distinctive flavors of Southeast Asia, a bottle of fish sauce is definitely your “go-to” ingredient. Experts advise to look for a bottle of fish sauce with a clear, reddish brown color. A muddy or dark, thick sauce might be the result of not being properly fermented, or sitting on a supermarket shelf for too long. Fish sauce doesn’t need to be refrigerated, though it is recommended to store it out of the sun. Popular fish sauce brands available in the states include Viet Hong (Three Crabs), Phu Quoc and Tiparos, which is available in the Grocery section here at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen. Remember to look to Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen for all the ingredients, equipment and inspiration you need to make delicious and authentic Asian meals.

For a flavorful, refreshing salad that includes fish sauce, try our recipe for Thai Cucumber Salad below.

Thai Cucumber Salad

1/4 cup water
1/4 cup Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 peeled, seeded, and sliced cucumbers

½ cup tiny salad shrimp (optional)

Combine fish sauce, water, lime juice, sugar, and vinegar until smooth. Add the cucumbers and shrimp, if using. Marinate for up to 12 hours. Add the cilantro and serve.

Makes 6 servings.


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