Fish sauce is widely used in many cuisines, especially in Asia, though it was created in both Asia and Europe simultaneously. Preparation requires lots of time, but the final effect is worth the hard work. Fish sauce is the world’s second most-beloved sauce behind ketchup.
Fish sauce appeared in the Ancient world. There were different names for it: ‘garum’, ‘garos’ (in Greece) and ‘liquamen’ (in Rome). It was a liquid made from seafood’ decay. Fish entrails were salted and fermented in the sun for several months until the innards were completely disintegrated. Then, the brown liquid was strained and used in cooking or like a sauce, often mixed with wine or vinegar.
Even though it was produced from waste, fish sauce has always been highly valued. The most prized type is made only from mackerel (usually from Roman outposts in Spain), though this kind of sauce became rare after the 16th century when it was replaced by innard-free anchovies sauces. Fish sauce was not only popular in the Ancient world but also known in Asia as well. It was called ‘kôechiap’ in Hokkien Chinese or ‘kecap’ in Indonesian. It was likely the precursor of modern ketchup.
Besides fish, other ingredients like meat or soy beans have been experimented with across history. In the Ist century BC the popularity of the sauce decreased and was superseded by a fermented bean-base sauce. There was even a notable division for fish-based (Southern Asia: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia) and bean-based sauces (Northern Asia: Korea, Japan, China) in Asia. Fish sauce gained its fame in China again in the 17th and 18th century and is now widely used in Asian cuisine, especially in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, Cambodia and China. It is stepping into other (non-Asian) cuisines as well, mainly thanks to the umami sensation and distinctive flavor.
Modern production is surprisingly close to the ancient ways, though some factories shorten the fermentation time or add extra enhancers (caramel, molasses, roasted rice) after re-extraction to compensate for the shorter process.
Fish sauce is made not only from fish but shellfish can be used as well. The mass is mixed with salt—usually three parts of fish and one of salt—to obtain 10-30% saltiness. Then, it is placed in a huge vat in the sun for fermentation for 9 to 24 months to reach the appropriate concentration (though too long can produce undesirable hydro-sulfuric acid, which may spoil the taste).
Fish paste can also be made in the same way, with the primary difference being the fermentation time shortened to only one month. After fermentation, the flesh is totally disintegrated. The liquid is strained and put in shallow ceramic bowls where it lays out in the sun to evaporate some of the water until a salty crust appears on the top (5-28 days), which can be used in the next production while solid leftovers from draining are given to pigs. Next, the sauce is kept in barrels to age for a month or long. The more aging, the lighter, sweeter and less salty it becomes. Sometimes, the sauce is also cooked to improve visual and taste properties.
Fish sauce production varies wildly from country to country, due to the differences in ingredients available. To quantify the differences, we analysed five sauces: from Thailand, Vietnam, China, South Korea and Japan.
The Thai sauce, made from anchovies, salt and sugar—along with The South Korea sauce possesses the most intense *fishy** flavor. Fermentation provides green, fruity, floral and cheesy/acidic notes. The heat of the sun and any cooking process to improve the color creates a roasted, nutty scent as well. Cooking and salting gives the sauce a vegetable nuance, especially onion and potato-like. However, the most sulphurous one is Chinese with additional green / fatty undertones, thanks to ingredients like shrimp, fish and salt.
In South Korea, sand lance, krill and salt are used to make the fish sauce. Its nuttiness is provided by benzaldehyde—a typical volatile for almond. Some malty notes can be found also thanks to 3-methylbutanal, which is the key component in chocolate, though in fish sauce, it has a more fatty – fruity flavor. The same substance is present in Vietnamese sauce, which is made from fish, salt and sugar. It is the most cheesy and acidic one as well.
The Japanese variant is prepared from many different ingredients, namely dried bonito, salt, soy sauce, sugar, sweet rice, wine, mushroom, seaweed, weed, yeast and vinegar. The composition is much more complex, offering a wildly diverse aroma. No fishy notes are palpable due to the intricate mixture. Dried bonito possesses fishy scents but they are gone or in such low concentration that it is impossible to taste. Instead, the Japanese sauce is the most fruity and floral with intense roasted and woody undertones coming from soy sauce and dried tuna.
Fish sauce is widely used to complement dishes such as soups, broths (especially ramen), and stews. It enriches marinades for grilling meat (can be combined for example with lamb, beef, pork and chicken), seafood (for example salmon, crab, shrimp) and vegetables (for example mushroom, beetroot, parsley, broccoli, chard). You can add fish sauce to other sauces and salad dressings to deepen their savoury flavours. Mix it with some oil, garlic, chilli, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce for a perfect dipping for dumplings or sushi. It goes well in fried rice and noodles as pad thai. You can even add an Asian twist by adding some drops fish sauce to cocktails like ‘Blood Mary’. If you are courageous enough, add a few drops of fish sauce to caramel or peanut butter and sprinkle it on top of ice cream.