Fish Sauce. It’s the reason for that funky smell in the air as you walk towards the front door of a Thai restaurant!
While it’s used in some Chinese dishes, fish sauce is an essential ingredient for many Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian dishes. We love using it in our cooking!
In this article, we’ll talk about what it is, how to use it, what to buy, and how to store it.
What Is Fish Sauce?
Fish sauce (yú lù, 鱼露) is made from salting and fermenting anchovies or krill.
The salt draws moisture out of the seafood. Fish sauce makers press the mixture to separate out the briny, fishy liquid that we know as fish sauce. It can be fermented for months or even years!
How To Use It
Fish sauce is one of those ingredients that may seem a little scary, especially when you get that first whiff of it upon opening the bottle. But don’t be turned off by the smell. It hasn’t gone bad…that’s kind of just the way it smells. It’s fermented fish!
It adds a savory umami element to dishes, and a slight seafood flavor, and it can be used similar to how anchovies are used in Mediterranean cuisine––to add flavor and complexity. A touch of this ingredient in your Eggplant with Garlic Sauce or Thai Basil Beef with instantly elevate each dish.
It is also very salty, so use a light hand. Some cooks use it in place of salt. A Vietnamese home cook once told us that using fish sauce to salt pho broth (and no salt) will yield the most flavorful, high quality pho.
We also like to add a splash to our fried rice dishes sometimes, and it does wonders for the flavor! Fish sauce is also a key ingredient in dipping sauces and dressings, like Vietnamese nuoc cham, which is served with spring rolls/summer rolls and noodle salads.
Buying & Storing
Any high quality brand will do! They range in price and quality, depending on how long they were fermented and how pure they are (i.e. fish sauces with less added sugar and fewer additives).
For a detailed list of the best tasting brands out there, check out this very helpful, handy article that compares 13 popular brands, and find the best quality one available at your local Asian market or online.
We’ve heard that Red Boat is the brand to buy, but we’ve found that it can be a difficult brand to locate. As of this writing, though, Red Boat Fish sauce is available online at Thrive Market (full disclosure: this is an affiliate link; if you sign up through it, you’ll be helping to support our blog), an online membership-based market with affordable organic and specialty products.
Fish sauce is a fermented ingredient, and it does not need to be refrigerated. Store in a cool, dry place like the pantry. It has a shelf life of about 1 year. If you’re going to keep it beyond one year, you can refrigerate it.
Substitutions for Fish Sauce
You can find fish sauce in any Asian market, or even in some supermarkets these days. If, however, you can’t find it, you can substitute a bit of soy sauce and some finely minced anchovies.
If you’re vegan or have a seafood or shellfish allergy, you can substitute mushroom flavored soy sauce, which will provide both the salt and umami elements. The flavor won’t be quite as rich, but it’ll do in a pinch!
You could also substitute vegan fish sauce, which is made from kelp:
Our Favorite Dishes That Use This Ingredient:
- Fish Sauce Chicken Wings
- Shrimp Pad Thai
- Thai Chili Sauce Chicken Stir-fry
- Thai Basil Eggplant
- Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce
- Pho (Vietnamese Noodle Soup)
- Instant Pot Pho
- Thai Chicken Stir-fry with Basil & Mint
- 20-Minute Chicken Pho
If you have further questions about this ingredient, let us know in the comments––we try to answer every single one.